About 30,000 Syrians have streamed into Iraq's Kurdistan region since last week and thousands more are waiting to enter the country, the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday, urging all neighbouring countries to keep their borders open to those fleeing the war in Syria.
"With several tens of thousands of people having crossed since last week, this new exodus from Syria is among the largest we have so far seen during the conflict, which is now into its third year," spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Dan McNorton told reporters in Geneva.
"As of this morning, a further 2,000-3,000 people were reported waiting close to the Syrian side of the border, and expected to cross Tuesday."
Nearly 2 million Syrians have fled their war-torn country and registered as refugees or applied for registration, with two-thirds of these having arrived this year. According to the United Nations, there are now more than 684,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 516,000 in Jordan, 434,000 in Turkey, 155,000 in Iraq, and 107,000 in Egypt.
The new influx began last Thursday when Kurdistan authorities suddenly opened access to the temporary Peshkhabour pontoon bridge north of Sahela, allowing several hundred people camped in the area since earlier last week to enter Iraq. By the following morning, thousands had swarmed across the swaying bridge over the Tigris.
On Monday, more than 4,800 people entered through this access point. Many came from Malikiyye city in the Syrian governorate of Al-Hasakah and told UNHCR they had fled an aerial bombardment that morning. Those who arrived in the next few days were from further west, including Efrin, Aleppo, Al Hasakah and Al Qamishly.
"As well as people who told us they were fleeing recent bombings, others say they were escaping fighting and tension amongst various factions on the ground," McNorton said. "Also cited was the collapse of the economy due to war and the resulting difficulties in caring for their families."
The vast majority of those crossing are children, women and elderly persons with many having camped in tents by the river for the past few days waiting for the crossing point to open.
In response, UNHCR and partners have erected shelters to provide shade, and water and food distributions have been set up at crossing points.
In Erbil Governorate, farther east, UNHCR has established a transit site at Kawergost with over 1,000 tents. The transit site is now sheltering some 9,000 Syrians. UNHCR has also dispatched more than 90 trucks with aid from Erbil. Relief items distributed include tents, plastic tarpaulins, sleeping mats, blankets, kitchen sets, hygienic supplies, water tanks, portable latrines, portable showers and electric fans.
However, the agency noted that because of the scale and speed of the influx, some people still lack tents and have to camp under tarpaulins or other makeshift shelters. Another temporary site is being set up to house future arrivals.
To boost rapidly depleting aid supplies in Iraq, UNHCR sent 15 tractor-trailer trucks to northern Iraq from its stockpile in Amman, Jordan. That shipment, expected to arrive this week, includes more than 3,100 tents, two pre-fabricated warehouses and jerry cans. Additional supplies are currently being organized, the agency said.
In the longer-term, UNHCR said it is building a camp in cooperation with its partners and the Kurdish regional government, which is expected to be ready to accommodate refugees within weeks.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has meanwhile been working with UNHCR and has also been distributing life-saving supplies, including more than 125,000 litres of bottled water at Peshkhabour since Thursday, and 4 tankers of safe water to cover additional needs.
"Our staff at the Peshkhabour crossing point in northern Iraq say that many of the new arrivals are exhausted and in urgent need of water and shelter as summer temperatures reach 45 degrees Celsius" said UNICEF's Representative to Iraq, Marzio Babille. "Along with our partners, we are doing everything possible to ensure all needs of these new arrivals are immediately met."
UNICEF and the local department of social affairs are also supporting UNHCR at the crossing point to ensure unaccompanied and separated children are identified, registered and provided with all necessary support.
UNICEF has also procured 60,000 litres of bottled water and 20,000 biscuits for children under five to be distributed among the 3,000 refugees sheltered at the Kawargosh transit site.
UNHCR has urged countries in the region and elsewhere to keep borders open and to receive all Syrians who seek protection amid the fighting that has so far claimed over 100,000 lives since it began in March 2011.