‘We paid $2,000’: Syrian refugees charged to cross Iraq border

by Editorial Team

Sky News- Kurds forced from their homes in northeastern Syria by Turkey’s incursion are being denied entry into northern Iraq as the border crossing over the River Tigris has been closed.

People desperate to leave the country and claim refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan have resorted to smugglers to sneak them across another section of the border at night to get to a refugee camp 150km (93 miles) away, where more than 7,100 displaced Syrian Kurds have arrived in the past week, the UN said.

The passage comes at a price of up to $800 (£618) per person, UK-based NGO Khalsa Aid and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) told Sky News.

There is also some suggestion soldiers at the border are taking a cut of the fee, but this cannot be verified.

One refugee, Rifaa, escaped the Turkey-Syria border town of Qamishli with her husband and three daughters.

“There were dead bodies on the street,” she told the NRC.

“We found a smuggler to bring us to Kurdistan and we gave them the amount of money they asked to save ourselves. We paid $2,000 for five people. We saved our lives but we suffered.”

More than 166,000 people, mainly Kurds, have been forced from their homes in northeastern Syria after President Trump announced he was pulling US troops out of the region and Turkey started an incursion on 9 October against Kurdish soldiers – US allies who Ankara considers terrorists.

Khalsa Aid founder Ravinder Singh said his team went to the border on Tuesday to provide food and clean water to the increasing number of refugees queuing at the border to get into Iraqi Kurdistan as a five-day ceasefire ends.

He said: “There are several rogue soldier and armed militia groups who are ‘taxing’ them to cross.

“Despite many being doctors, teachers, engineers – highly educated – some are unable to pay because they’ve had to flee their homes in Syria and have nothing, so are unable to cross.”

As they visited the border, Syrian President Bashar Assad, who considers the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Force (SDF) terrorists, called Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan “a thief who robbed factories, wheat and fuel and is today stealing territory”.

Mr Singh and his Iraq coordinator, Sozan Fahmi, who is an Iraqi Kurd, said on Tuesday they witnessed 55 buses with about 40 people on each, taking refugees from the border to camps in Iraq.

He said roughly 700 refugees have been arriving each day but on Tuesday, the final planned day of a ceasefire brokered by the US, the numbers have increased dramatically, despite day-long security checks at the border.

Many of the refugees, who the UN says are mostly women and children, have walked or hitchhiked more than 400km (250 miles) to get to Iraq as they fear there will be no Kurdish soldiers to protect them from Turkish forces and Islamic State militants.

Ms Fahmi added: “The Kurds are used to war but having to flee your home is horrifying, especially as this isn’t the first time for many.

“There is a man at the camp who told us he had to run from his home and could only save three of his children – he couldn’t get his wife and son out quick enough.

“They then saw their neighbours’ home get blown up, with the family inside.”

She added that on Monday they had just finished giving out female dignity packs, containing underwear, sanitary pads, soap and shampoo, when a family with young children arrived and asked for warm clothes.

“It’s winter here now and lots of these people fled in just t-shirts so they really need warm clothes and it’s only going to get colder,” she said.

Medical NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres is also at the camp, and its doctors said most people arriving only have minor physical issues but the majority have “signs of depression and anxiety”.

Doctors are also concerned about diarrhoea outbreaks caused by people drinking unclean water on their journey and at the border.

As refugees continued to flee their homes in Syria, the presidents of Turkey and Russia agreed to a “safe zone” 19 miles (30km) from the border in which no Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, considered terrorists by Turkey, will be allowed.

Mr Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin said they would help refugees return “in a safe and voluntary manner”, but with no Kurdish forces in the area to protect them it remains unlikely refugees will want to return.

As the meeting took place Syrian President Assad said he was ready to support any “popular resistance” against Turkey’s invasion and has offered clemency to those who had joined the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Force, which his government considers secessionists.

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