Iraqi Kurdistan sets quota for Syria refugees: aid groups

GENEVA Tue Aug 20, 2013 1:59pm EDT

1 of 4. Syrian refugees rest at a new refugee camp on the outskirts of the city of Arbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region, August 20, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

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GENEVA (Reuters) - The government of Iraqi Kurdistan has set an entry quota of 3,000 refugees a day to cope with an influx of Kurds fleeing the civil war in Syria, but there are signs many more are still coming in, aid agencies said on Tuesday.

About 35,000 refugees, believed to be mainly Syrian Kurds, have entered Iraq since last Thursday, including an estimated 5,100, well over the cap, on Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said.

UNHCR officials told an internal U.N. meeting in Baghdad on Monday that up to 100,000 Syrian refugees could be expected to flee to Iraq within the next month, if the current pace continued, U.N. sources said.

Fleeing bombardments and sectarian tensions in parts of northern Syria including Aleppo and Efrin, they arrive exhausted, with many children dehydrated from walking in the scorching heat.

"The Kurdistan regional government authorities have put a daily quota for those refugees who will be allowed in," Jumbe Omari Jumbe of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told reporters in Geneva.

IOM said around 5,000 refugees crossed on Monday, again exceeding the cap.

A Western diplomat in Geneva said it was not clear how many more refugees might be on their way, adding: "We are not sure whether there is an actual quota policy or whether it is a practical ability to absorb them."

Jumbe said the Kurds feared attacks by various armed rebel groups including al-Nusra, an Islamist militia linked to al Qaeda.

Both al Nusra and al Qaeda's Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant have in recent months been fighting for control of parts of northern and northeastern Syria against Kurdish groups who have taken advantage of the anti-Assad rebellion to assert their control over majority-Kurdish areas.

"DRAINED, HOT AND THIRSTY"

Russia said on Tuesday extremist violence and economic troubles worsened by Western sanctions were to blame for the exodus since the conflict began in March 2011, and that Syrians streaming into northern Iraq were fleeing "terrorist groups".

Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's most powerful diplomatic ally during the conflict, has blamed much of the violence on Assad's opponents and opposed efforts to place U.N. sanctions on the government.

"Moscow is deeply concerned about the worsening of the refugee situation," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Referring to Syrian Kurds who have fled to northern Iraq in recent days, it said: "Thousands of people, many of them women and children, are abandoning their homes to save themselves from the brutality of fighters from the terrorist groups al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant".

The influx began last Thursday when the Kurdistan regional government authorities in northern Iraq opened access across the Peshkhabour pontoon bridge, UNHCR said. The bridge has now been reserved for commercial traffic and refugees have been directed to use the mountainous Sahela crossing to the south, it added.

"This new exodus from Syria is among the largest we have seen in the conflict," UNHCR spokesman Dan McNorton said.

"Those people crossing this morning ... are drained, they are hot and thirsty, they are walking on a long dirt road as we speak in a long line," he said.

More than 1.9 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries and North Africa since the uprising began in March 2011 and Syria descended into civil war.

Nearly half the estimated 4,800 people who crossed on Monday are children, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) said. It has identified at least 80 unaccompanied teenage boys sent across the border by their families for their safety or to find work.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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