Among Kobane’s displaced, growing numbers seeking safety in northern Iraq, eastern Syria

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 10 October 2014, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

With more than 172,000 Syrian Kurds having fled into Turkey from fighting around Kobane, we are seeing growing numbers choosing to continue their journey, either by heading to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq or else crossing back into Syria several hundred kilometres to the east.

In Iraq’s Kurdistan Region more than 1,600 people have sought refuge at the remote Gawilan refugee camp, some 145 km from Dohuk, over the past fortnight. Between 150 and 200 Syrians have been arriving daily this week, and the trend is expected to continue in the coming days.

Most report having spent 10 to 14 days in Turkey in the area around Şanilurfa before deciding to move eastwards from there. Conditions in the area have been difficult. People have contended with living in crowded mosques or in some cases on the streets without food or money. Many of the refugees were required to leave cars or livestock at the border when they entered Turkey, and decided to move to northern Iraq because they have relatives or friends there.

The refugees at Gawilan camp told UNHCR of the dangers they had endured in the initial part of their journey from Syria to safety in Turkey, with several accounts of people being killed or maimed by land mines. To enter the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, people waded across rivers 1.5 metres. Others paid smugglers US$250 to get through the informal border crossing at Silopi, near Zakho.

They also reported executions and other atrocities by ISIS fighters. One man said he had fled his village because people taken captive were being beheaded. Another said he was held prisoner after being sentenced to death in a makeshift court set up in a school in the town of Manbij (about 66 km southwest of Kobane). He told UNHCR that some 400 prisoners were held in this former school 100 people per classroom. They were beaten with leather belts five times daily. He witnessed seven men who had been sentenced the same day beheaded in front of him, and was due to be executed on 28 September. He and others managed to escape before then when the school was hit by bombs, and were horrified to see human heads mounted on the fence of the main park for others in the town to see. This man still fears for the safety of his wife and children whose whereabouts are unknown to him.

The Syrians arriving in northern Iraq are being brought by Kurdish security forces to the Gawilan camp which was set up a year ago to house former waves of Syrian refugees mainly from Aleppo and Qamishli. The camp is run by the Kurdistan Regional government and had been hosting about 2,500 people before the latest influx. New arrivals receive shelter, food, and relief items. Once registered, many are leaving to join relatives in Erbil or to search for work. Those without family links are staying at the camp. The vast majority of the new arrivals are women and children, as many men stayed behind to protect properties and defend their land. UNHCR is boosting its programmes to assist women and offer more psycho-social counselling, which is currently only available once a week.

Other people who have fled the Kobane area have in some cases been crossing back into north eastern Syria near the town of Al Qamishli. Some 1,750 people are now staying with relatives and friends in several towns in the area in the Al Hassekah province. UNHCR is working with teams of outreach volunteers to identify the newly arrived displaced people and provide aid. About 40-50 people have sought shelter at the Newroz camp, which was originally set up to help Syrians affected by earlier waves of displacement and is now also hosting 3,800 Iraqi Yazidi people who fled Sinjar and surrounds in August.

In Turkey, government officials say more than 172,500 Syrians fleeing Kobane and surrounds have entered the country over the last few weeks. While the vast majority of these fled in the first few days of the influx, a steady stream continues with average daily arrivals about 570 people over the past few days through the Yumurtalik border crossing.

Many of the refugees are staying with host communities and the government and aid agencies are working with the Mukhtars or village leaders to distribute aid to refugees and host families. Other refugees are staying in various collective shelters managed by Turkish authorities, such as schools, markets, sports centres, wedding halls, mosques and various other transit shelters.