Middle East

Fleeing Shiite Turkmen caught in northern Iraq limbo

An Iraqi family fleeing violence in the northern city of Tal Afar, arrive at the Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 km West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on July 1, 2014. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED

AL-KHAZAR, Iraq: Dozens of families who fled a Shiite Turkmen town in northern Iraq overrun by Sunni militants want to move south but are stuck in limbo between the authorities and insurgents.

The families initially fled Tal Afar, part of a swath of territory across five provinces that fell to jihadist-led fighters in an offensive that began June 9, for the nearby town of Sinjar.

They then moved to camps on the outskirts of Iraq’s autonomous three-province Kurdish region.

But land routes to the Shiite-dominated south, which is markedly more stable than the conflict-hit north and west, are controlled by militants led by ISIS, the Al-Qaeda splinter group.

And Kurdish authorities have blocked those fleeing the conflict in northern Iraq from entering the autonomous region without a resident sponsor.

They have also barred them from the regional capital Irbil entirely, meaning they cannot get to the airport to fly south.

“When we arrived at the camp, they provided us with food, but we do not want to live in a camp,” said Murtada Qassem, who fled Tal Afar to Sinjar, and then later to a camp bordering the Kurdish region.

“We want to go to the south, to get jobs and better housing,” the father of seven said.

Kadhim Naqi, a 64-year-old with nine children, added that his family wanted to move south because “there is no war or dispute there. ... It is more stable.”

Around 1.2 million people have been displaced within Iraq by unrest this year, including hundreds of thousands who fled their homes following the militant offensive.

Many have sought refuge in hotels in Kurdistan as tourists, thereby evading the requirement for a local sponsor, but a large number have been prevented from entering the autonomous area because they have not found a resident to support their entry.

As a result, they have been forced to stay in camps near Al-Khazar checkpoint, the main entry route from Arab areas of northern Iraq to Irbil.

“The situation is very difficult, and our policy now is to settle those refugees in the camps,” said Dindar Zebari, deputy chief of the Kurdish foreign relations department.

Zebari said those in the camps were free to leave, but without safe overland routes and with air transport inaccessible, they have little option but to stay.

The International Organization for Migration has urged the establishment of safe routes to provide aid to the needy, amid worries of a worsening humanitarian crisis.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 03, 2014, on page 9.




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