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Relief Operations Under Way for Syrians Fleeing to Iraq

  • Lisa Schlein

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border point in Dahuk, 430 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, August 20, 2013.

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border point in Dahuk, 430 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, August 20, 2013.

Aid agencies are trying to speed up relief for a sudden surge of Syrian refugees into Iraq’s Kurdistan region as fighting rages inside Syria between Kurdish and Islamist forces. The United Nations refugee agency reports about 30,000 Syrians have fled into northern Iraq since Thursday.

The U.N. refugee agency said between 2,000 and 3,000 more people are reported close to the Syrian side of the border waiting to cross into northern Iraq, adding to the more than 4,800 people who arrived Monday.

UNHCR spokesman Dan McNorton said the Syrians are fleeing an upsurge of civil war violence in areas of Aleppo, Efrin, Hassakah and al-Qamishly. In Kurdish areas of Syria, Islamist insurgents have been battling local forces for weeks.

“With several tens of thousands of people having crossed since last week, this new exodus from Syria is among the largest we have seen during the conflict now in its third year. As well as people who told us they were fleeing recent bombings, others say that they were escaping fighting and tension amongst various factions on the ground. Also cited was the collapse of the economy due to war and the resulting difficulties in caring for their families,” McNorton said.

Despite the weeks of violence, the heavy influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq has caught Kurdish officials and aid agencies by surprise.

The UNHCR and aid partners are erecting shelters to provide shade for the refugees. Water and food distribution sites are being set up at the crossing points. Hundreds of tents are being provided.

The International Organization for Migration and the Kurdistan Regional Government are providing buses and trucks to move the thousands of Syrians away from the border to safer areas deeper into Iraq.

The World Food Program said on Tuesday it will start distributing enough food parcels for 15,000 people for one week. And, it says it plans to send enough food rations to feed 185,000 people for one month from a port in Turkey.

Before this recent influx, Iraq had 155,000 registered Syrian refugees.

The U.N. Children’s Fund said it is particularly concerned about helping children. UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado notes nearly half of the refugees who crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday are children.

“Many are below 12 years old, and the younger ones were particularly dehydrated and exhausted after the four or five hour walk across the border in the scorching heat. Since Sunday, at least 80 children have been identified as separated or unaccompanied," Mercado noted. "Many of them are young teenage boys sent across the border by their families for their safety, or to find work. So far no unaccompanied girls have been documented.”

Mercado said separated or unaccompanied children are extremely vulnerable and need extra protection and that a UNICEF child protection team is at the border working to identify them.

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