‘We aren’t prepared to accept these numbers’: Kurdish Self-Administration official on wave of Iraqis fleeing Mosul to Syria

Thousands of Iraqis are fleeing Islamic State territory in western Iraq and crossing into northeast Syria into territory controlled by the Kurdish-led Self-administration government.

Refugees began leaving their villages on the western outskirts of Mosul earlier this month after a coalition of the Iraqi army, Iranian-backed militias and Kurdish Peshmerga, backed by airpower from the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition, launched an offensive to seize the city from the Islamic State (IS).

So far, at least 2,500 Iraqis have arrived at the al-Haul refugee camp, a barren desert settlement located in Jazirah canton. Kurdish-led forces affiliated with the Self-Administration control the canton, which roughly corresponds to Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province.

 Ministry of Defense members visiting the al-Haul camp to assess the security situation on October 24. Photo courtesy of the Jazira Ministry of Defense.

“Our capacity is limited,” Dajwar Ahmed, the joint head of the Office of Humanitarian Affairs in Jazirah canton, tells Syria Direct’s Mohamed Ibrahim.

The Self-Administration, Ahmed said, is prepared to provide housing and support to 40,000 Iraqi refugees but expects that “100,000 or more” may come as the fight for Mosul intensifies.

Q: Discuss the capacity of Jazira canton to absorb refugees fleeing the fighting in Mosul. How many are you prepared to receive?

There are about 6,000 Iraqi refugees in the al-Haul camp, 2,500 of whom recently fled Mosul.

[Ed.: The al-Haul camp was established in 2003 by the United Nations to house refugees fleeing Iraq after the American invasion. From 2013-2015, the town of al-Haul was controlled by the Islamic State. Kurdish forces expelled the Islamic State from the town in 2015 and the al-Haul camp began receiving refugees again.]

Our capacity is limited. Right now, we’re coordinating with the UNHCR to receive 40,000 more people. But we expect that 100,000 or more refugees may come to the province.

We won’t be able to accept more. We already have more than 15,000 Iraqi refugees who live in Noroz, Roj and al-Haul camps.

[Ed.: Most of the 15,000 refugees came to Hasakah before the battle for Mosul began, said Ahmed. Noroz and Roj camps lie north of al-Haul, near the Syrian-Turkish border. Only al-Haul camp is currently receiving refugees.]

Q: If your expectations are accurate, there will be more than 60,000 refugees that the canton cannot provide for. What is the contingency plan?

We aren’t prepared to accept these numbers, but we’re coordinating with the UNHCR to accommodate 40,000 people.  We don’t think that 60,000 more refugees will settle in Rojava.

We expect that, like the Yazidis, they’ll flee from Rojava to other countries. About 120,000 Yazidis crossed through Rojava but only 5,000 stayed.

[Ed.: In 2014, the Islamic State attacked northern Iraq’s Sinjar region, home to thousands of Yazidis. The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner announced in June that IS was committing genocide against the Yazidis through killings and enslavement of the minority group. Thousands of Yazidi families have fled IS-controlled Iraq for Syria and other countries.]

 The al-Haul refugee camp. Photo courtesy of Jazira Ministry of Defense.

Q: Are you concerned that Islamic State infiltrators will come to the area? What security procedures are you taking?

Of course, security is one of our priorities. We’re extremely careful and are taking precautionary measures. But sometimes Islamic State members sneak in. Yes, this happens.

[Ed.: Hasakah has witnessed two suicide attacks in October, one that was claimed by IS and killed more than 30 people at a wedding, Kurdistan 24 reported.]

We don’t have any problem with our brothers in Mosul or any civilians who want to enter the camp. But we must first confirm his or her identity and go through security procedures. I can’t give you details about our security procedures.

On Tuesday, October 25, we visited the camp with the head of the Defense and Interior Ministries to assess the security situation.

Q: What about families who are affiliated with the Islamic State? Will you accept the women and children who are fleeing?

Yes, most certainly. We are receiving people from a humanitarian standpoint. What is the sin of those whose hands are not bloodied? We are extremely careful when it comes to relatives of Islamic State fighters, especially after we received information that families of IS leaders may head our way.

Q: Can refugees cross the border easily? Can they leave the camp and enter the city?

There are currently around 3,000 Iraqis waiting on the border because the Islamic State won’t let them through. Most refugees are entering Syria by way of Iraqi and Syrian smugglers. The Self-Administration won’t refuse any refugee. But we need support from the UN and other international organizations.

[Ed.: Refugees arrive at the border town Rajam Salibi before being transferred to al-Haul camp, said Ahmed.]

If someone has immediate relatives outside the camp who can sponsor them, then he or she can leave the camp and enter the city with a sponsor.

Q: What other organizations are working with the Self-Administration?

UNHCR provided us with 1,000 tents. Other international organizations are helping as well.

But so far the support is coming slowly.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.