UN high commissioner for refugees says some Syrians waiting near border for three days before crossing into Iraq
The slender green span of a new pontoon bridge crossing the Tigris river from the Syrian bank to the Iraqi province of Dohuk is almost invisible beneath the weight of refugees.
They stretch at least a dozen deep for hundreds of metres back into the evening light. The dust from the feet of the crowd on the far side, waiting to cross, is lit up by the setting sun.
The first group to cross was small, according to the UN refugees agency (UNHCR) in Geneva. On Thursday at lunchtime some 750 crossed into Iraq. By afternoon thousands had followed them.
“The factors allowing this sudden movement are not fully clear to us,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva. Some of the Syrians had reportedly been waiting near the Tigris river for two to three days. UNHCR monitors at the border saw buses arriving on the Syrian side dropping off more people seeking to cross. Edwards added that both the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the frontier at the Peshkhabour crossing are normally tightly controlled.
According to the UN, many of the arrivals had travelled to the border from Aleppo, Afrin, Hassake and Qamishli. Some families told UNHCR they had relatives in northern Iraq. “UNHCR and partner agency teams, together with local authorities, worked into the early hours to aid the new arrivals,” Edwards said.
With refugee numbers from the war in Syria totalling 3 million in the region, the latest arrivals in Iraq, which has increasingly been destabilised by the war in its neighbour, have raised renewed concern about Baghdad’s ability to deal with the fallout from the Syrian conflict.
On Friday, Baghdad requested help to fight extremists less than two years after the withdrawal of US combat troops. Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said he had asked for a US assistance package including advisers, intelligence analysis and surveillance assets, including lethal drones.
US troops left Iraq in December 2011, as required under a 2008 security agreement. Both countries tried to negotiate plans to keep at least several thousand US forces in Iraq beyond the deadline to maintain security. However, the proposal fell through after Baghdad refused to give the troops immunity from legal charges.