This week militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) trapped thousands of Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, leading to a reversal in refugee flows – thousands of desperate people fleeing from Iraq into Syria, after years of going in the opposite direction.
With Mount Sinjar’s north and west faces located close to the border with Syria’s Hassakeh province, up to 10,000 people were able to escape off the mountain and cross over. While ISIS wreaks havoc next door, Hassakeh remains largely under the control of the Kurds’ autonomous Democratic Union Party, or PYD.
Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, has been on the ground in Iraqi Kurdistan this week. Along with Gustavo Fernandez, Iraq program manager for Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), he discusses the new flow of refugees back into Syria – and Syria’s new role as a transit route between locations in Iraq.
Syria Deeply: How does the flow look on the ground – where exactly are people going?
Joe Stork: People who have been going from Iraq into Syria are transiting back to Iraq. The Sinjar Mountains run east to west; the north side isn’t very far from the Syrian border. And people have been coming off the west side as well now – that’s even closer to the Syrian border. And then when they reach the Syrian side, the Syrian Kurds and the PYD have been assisting them. They transit through, and then they go back to safer areas of Iraq.
Gustavo Fernandez: We have the advance of ISIS forces that prompted a massive displacement from Sinjar city, which was already hosting IDPs from near Sinjar. So with the latest development, people had to flee to the mountains where there was a lack of food and water. Over the last five days, many of them have managed to escape off the mountain and make a several-hour walk into Syrian territory.
There they follow a route that follows near the border with Iraq, and then they cross back into Iraqi Kurdistan at Domiz, which is currently not under ISIS control.
Syria Deeply: How receptive are Syrian Kurds to this new influx?
Stork: I’ve been to where they come across the bridge back into northern Iraq, and people coming off the mountains said it was perfectly logical for them to be coming into Syria. There’s been nowhere else they can go without encountering ISIS checkpoints. For Yazidis coming off the mountains, Syria is the natural place to go, and if you avoid ISIS’s territory in Syria – and if you’re in an area under the control of the PYD – you are in good hands.
I’ve been told there are people who aren’t Yazidi who’ve gone onto the mountain to guide people down, to help them figure out how to get across and not be caught by ISIS in the parts of Hassakeh where they have a presence. My impression from the people I’ve talked with is that they were helped, they were put into trucks, they were given food and water and were being supported.
Fernandez: The response has been extremely positive from both sides of the border – great efforts were put out by both communities and local authorities in both Syria and Iraq.
Syria Deeply: Could a refugee rush into northeastern Syria – where last summer thousands fled for Iraqi Kurdistan – have been predicted by the international community?
Stork: No. We didn’t predict this, and neither did anybody else. Everyone was taken by surprise. This happened overnight, in the space of a few hours. When I was up in northern Iraq last week, there were already a lot of displaced Yazidis in local villages, in the streets of Dohuk, and now there are many thousands more arriving. There wasn’t a big relief effort going on at the time – there were efforts by local and Kurdish NGOs and Iraqi Christian NGOs, but I didn’t see any sign of international groups like the U.N. They were just starting.
Fernandez: We’ve sent food and water to the Yazidi IDPs through a local NGO working on the Iraqi side, and then set up mobile stations with water and food along the road to the Syrian border. We’re supporting a newly established camp on the Syrian side that is hosting around 10,000 Iraqi refugees. There are medical clinics.
On the Iraqi side, where the IDPs come back out of Syria, we have established mobile clinics and are figuring out how to scale up our medical services.
Answers have been edited.