More than 3,000 desperate Iraqi Sunni refugees have arrived in the al-Hawl refugee camp on the Syria side of the border in the past week as the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq gathers pace.
Fresh advances were reported on Wednesday in the western Iraqi city of Rutba as the Iraqi military attempted to cut off IS’s supply lines into Syria, the latest in a long line of drives against the militant group.
But several hundred kilometres away in al Hawl, the local Kurdish-led administration which runs the refugee camp finds itself conflicted about what to do: fears are running high that IS sympathisers have crossed the border with the refugees, but many families, women and children have also found themselves stranded and in dire need of aid and shelter.
The fresh exodus has been sparked by a wave of pro-Iraqi government advances that have pushed IS into further retreat – and towards the Syrian border where Sunni Arab civilians say they are happy to escape IS, but face a deeply uncertain future.
“The Iraqi army said they would open 13 safety corridors for the people running away from Mosul, but we did not see one corridor,” Abu Mutlak, an 18-year-old Iraqi who recently fled Mosul, told Middle East Eye.
“I come here to save the life of my kids,” said Abu Saraa, a 36-year-old Iraqi refugee who recently fled to Syria. He spoke to MEE under a pseudonym for security reasons as he used to work for the American energy company Baker Hughes Company in Basra.
“Daesh [IS] are very shitty people, and all of them are killers and criminals. If you smoke, they kill you, if you wear anything they [don’t agree with] kill you,” he said.
“Whoever is Daesh – [forget about them] and kill them – but leave us innocent people alone. Even if there is one Daesh in the village, you claim the whole village is Daesh, this is not justice.”
Many Iraqi civilians are now fleeing to the town of Makhmour, which is a half-hour drive from the frontline. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has built a new camp there, but many have complained that they were unable to gain access.
According to refugees in the Hawl camp, most of the roads north to Iraqi Kurdistan were blocked off, as were the roads south to Baghdad.
Nor has road to Syria been left wide open. Ciwan Sido, the manager of Hawl camp said that around 3,000 people have arrived from Syria with the help of smugglers last week. Others, he said, are still waiting to cross.
“These people are waiting for entry permission from the Rabia [near Sinjar] crossing, and they are coming from the cities under IS control, such as Mosul,” Sido told Middle East Eye.
“We are helping now but we have received no support from [international aid] organisations and everything – from protection, to food and water – is being provided by the local administration.”
The numbers of new arrivals though is only expected to swell as long as Iraq proves unwilling to take people back.
Iraqi authorities, both in Erbil and Baghdad, are currently demanding that people be sponsored by family or friends in Iraq in order to return but this already difficult process is further complicated for those stranded in Syria. The wave of IS bombings in and around Baghdad in which more than 200 people have been killed is only likely to exacerbate matters.
“Most people want to go back, but they need a sponsor on the other side,” Sido said.
With so few resources at his disposal, Sido said it will be extremely hard to separate genuine refugees from IS supporters, which has further raised suspicions.
“For example, right now we have 3,000 people, and maybe 50 people are with IS, and will go to our cities and carry out suicide attacks,” he said.
There has already been two IS arrests, Sido confirmed.
“Yes, after they entered, we got the names, and the Asayis [police] arrested [the IS suspects] after an investigation,” he added.
But the vast majority of the new arrivals are outraged and say that they were persecuted by IS, but are being treated like criminals by the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, as well as pro-Baghdad factions in Iraq, which say they distrust the Sunni Arabs after they seemingly welcomed IS when the militants captured Mosul in 2014.
“The difficulty is leaving,” said Abu Saraa, the Iraqi refugee who fled to Syria recently and used to work for an American energy company in Basra. “There is a problem between the Kurds and the Arabs. The Kurds say that all the Arabs are ISIS [Islamic State] and this is another shitty problem we need to solve.”
The issue is not just a Kurd-Arab divide: the region’s Kurds have also found themselves split over what to do about the new arrivals.
Unlike the Iraqi Kurdistan government which was recognised by the Iraqi constitution in 2005, the Syrian Kurdish administrations sprung up during the country’s civil war. As such, it is not recognised by either Damascus or the international community which has made getting aid and supplies far more difficult.
The refusal of the main Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to ally more closely with the president of the Iraqi Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, prompted Iraqi Kurdish authorities to close the Peshkhabour border crossing in March. The crossing is one of the only ones between the Syrian Kurdish administration and Iraq, and was a key lifeline to Syrian Kurds.
Turkey’s hostile stance toward the Syrian Kurds, which has also seen it close off its side of the border has further exasperated the situation in Kurdish-majority parts of Syria that have been forced to deal with a sizeable chunk of Mosul exodus to date.
Despite this, Kurdish-controlled parts of Syria have been some of the safest in recent months as they have not been bombed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies.
Even before the new Iraqi arrivals came, Abdulkarim Omer, a Kurdish foreign relations official told MEE that the region had taken in more than one million non-Kurdish Syrian citizens.
While there were seven camps for the displaced, able to house 40,000 people, the “majority” of displaced Syrians had managed to integrate, renting homes and finding work.
But with fighting still raging in Syria and Iraq and more people arriving every day, there are concerns this fragile arrangement cannot hold out for much longer.
Omer told MEE that Syrian Kurdish authorities had opened a few diplomatic offices in Sulaymaniyah, Stockholm, Berlin and Moscow in a bid to lobby for more international support. Recently, Kurdish officials have held separate meetings with both the Russians and Americans to gain more support.
The problem, according to Shakr Ibrahim, a humanitarian affairs manager in the Hasakah province, is that many aid agencies need permission from Damascus to operate in certain areas. The UN’s World Food Programme, in particular, has “sadly” not been able to work directly with the Kurds.
This means that many of the newly arrived Iraqis are having to face shortages of food, medicine, fuel and proper accommodation.
“My only son is suffering from cancer and we want to bring him by ambulance to the Iraqi border, but we need permission from the other side [Rabia border],” said Akram Obeid, a 25-year-old refugee.
“We are originally from Salahuddin [Sunni Muslim province north of Bagdad] but we were not able to go to Baghdad, because we do not have a connection.”
The Sunni Arabs say the situation is worsening in the areas under IS control especially after Baghdad cut government salaries, and raised the prices of goods.
“There is nothing in Mosul right now, only air strikes,” Abu Hamud added.
Most of the Iraqi Arabs in Syria who spoke to MEE said they were willing to join the Iraqi army, but that they were waiting for the “liberation” of Mosul city – something which been delayed again, even though operations on the outskirts of Mosul continue.
“The Iraqi army should not claim that we are all IS, and kill us…All the people in Mosul and around Mosul are ready to support the Iraqi army, but we have been waiting for a long time and the Iraqi army did not come,” Abu Saraa, a 36-year-old refugee, told MEE.
Another refugee, Abu Mana, 46, told MEE that he is desperate to go back home.
“We want to go back to Iraq [through the Rabia border gate], but we do not get permission from the Iraqi army or Peshmerga,” he said.
“Please, tell international organisations to help us, we need medicine.”[Source: Middle East Eye]