GUSIK, IRAQ – Thousands of Syrian Kurds have poured into Iraq over the past few days to escape deadly clashes between Kurdish fighters and jihadists and seeking a respite from privation.
The U.N. says more than 15,000 refugees have crossed into Iraq in the latest influx since Thursday, with more expected to follow.
Fierce fighting raged Sunday in the coastal heartland of President Bashar Assad’s clan, and U.N. inspectors tasked with investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria arrived in Damascus.
The fighting in Latakia came as Assad vowed again that he was determined to “eradicate terrorism,” which he blames for the deadly conflict that has plagued his country for the past 29 months.
The U.N. mission had been repeatedly delayed over differences with Assad’s regime concerning the scope of the probe into the alleged use of chemical arms in the Syrian war. Both the government and the rebels accuse each other of using chemical weapons.
The sudden influx of Syrians across the border stands in marked contrast to the relatively small numbers of refugees taken in by Iraq in recent months compared to other neighboring countries and has forced the U.N. refugee agency to scramble aid to the region.
The vast majority of refugees pouring into Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish regions in the north are women, children and the elderly.
Several thousand are being housed at the Quru Gusik camp just west of the Kurdish regional capital, Arbil, although it is still under construction and lacks many basic services, with others set to be moved to neighboring Sulaimaniyah province.
But for many, it provides a welcome respite from the fighting ravaging their home districts in a deadly spinoff from the Syrian civil war.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said Sunday that the exodus is unlike anything before in Iraq.
“UNHCR is witnessing a major exodus from Syria over the past few days unlike anything we have witnessed entering Iraq previously,” Claire Bourgeois, the agency’s Iraq representative, said in a statement.
Syrian government forces pulled out of most Kurdish-majority areas of northern and northeastern Syria last year, leaving Kurdish groups to run their own affairs.
But al-Qaida loyalists, who have played a significant role in the rebellion against Assad’s regime, see the region as a vital link to fellow jihadists in Iraq and have been locked in deadly fighting with Kurdish militias in recent months.
“There was war and looting and problems,” said Abdulkarim Brendar, who trekked with his five children to Iraqi Kurdistan. “We did not find a morsel (of food), so, with our children, we came here.”
The plight of civilians like Brendar and his family prompted Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional president, Massud Barzani, to threaten earlier this month to intervene to protect Syrian Kurds, the latest sign of the conflict’s growing cross-border impact.
“We fled because there is war, beheadings and killings, and in addition to that there is no work,” said Fadhel Abdullah, who crossed into Iraq from the Kurdish-majority Qamishli area of northeastern Syria. “The economic situation deteriorated and everything became expensive.”
The access of Syrian refugees to Iraq has been erratic, with local political tensions and fears of a spillover of the conflict leading Kurdistan regional authorities to shut the border in May.
Some restrictions were eased last month to allow Syrians to join family members already in Iraq, but the number allowed to cross the border had remained relatively low.
All told, more than 1.9 million Syrians have fled their homeland, with most seeking a haven in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Iraq hosted nearly 155,000 registered Syrian refugees before the latest influx.
For now, mobile medical teams are carrying out basic checks on those who have crossed, with a dozen so far referred to hospitals for diarrhea and vomiting as a result of the heat.
But with the fighting showing no sign of letup, the number of civilians wanting to cross the border is unlikely to relent.
“There was a shortage of food in the market, and everything became expensive, from bread to gas canisters, and unemployment was spreading,” said Ahmed Karim, whose wife held their 3-week-old baby in her arms outside a tent in Quru Gusik. “We decided to save ourselves before we died of hunger.”