AMMAN, JORDAN - Aid workers in northern Iraq say they are seeing increasing numbers of Syrians fleeing over the border into the mainly Kurdish region as the cease-fire in northeastern Syria is about to expire.
In the past day alone, the Norwegian Refugee Council reports that 1,736 Syrians crossed into Iraq, the highest number to cross in one day since the beginning of Turkey's military operation.
They say that many have escaped with just the clothes on their backs.
Ibrahim Barsoum is a program officer working with Syrian refugees for the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, run by a Catholic priest, Father Emanuel Youkhana. The group has been helping Iraqis displaced by Islamic State militants. Barsoum says the KRI, or Iraq's Kurdistan Region authority, facilitates their transfer into the country.
"Usually the families come through the night because they are not allowed, for some reason, to cross the borders over there, Barsoum said. “They come with smugglers or just cross the borders through the night. The security forces for KRI receive them. "
Barsoum said that the U.N. refugee agency is taking the lead in providing shelter in a number of northern Iraq's existing camps, some already hosting Yazidis, victims of Islamic State attacks in 2014. He said that many have escaped Turkish bombardment and attacks from Syrian militias allied with Turkey with just the clothes on their backs.
"Many of them need immediate and urgent support,” Barsoum said. “Food and basic needs for winter time — blankets and clothes, even. They don't have it. They just ran to save their lives and their kids' lives. It is a tragedy. "
The Norwegian Refugee Council believes that more than 7,140 Syrians have crossed into Iraq since Turkey started its military operation, which has displaced around 165,000 Syrians.
A refugee from Qamishli named Rifaa told the NRC that she escaped into northern Iraq with her husband and three daughters. She says there were dead bodies on the street. They managed to find a smuggler to bring them to northern Iraq, paying the man 2,000 U.S. dollars for five people. She said, “We saved our lives, but we suffered.”
NRC's Tom Peyre-Costa urges for more to be done to facilitate the safe passage of Syrians escaping violence in their homeland.
"Most of them are children, women and elderly people in a huge state of physical and psychological distress,” Peyre-Costa said. “We call on all fighters and authorities to guarantee safe passage for Syrian refugees for them to them to seek refuge and protection in Iraq."
The United Nations and aid agencies are planning for up to 50,000 Syrian refugees expected to cross into northern Iraq in the coming months.