Within 10 days after the bridge crossing over the Peshkhabour river was reopened on August 15, nearly 50,000 refugees – mostly Syrian Kurds – had flooded into Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Why did Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region reopen its border to Syrian refugees last month?
According to interviews with officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) political rivalry between the two groups – who are partners in the ruling Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) -- played a major role in the reopening of the frontier.
Within 10 days after the bridge crossing over the Peshkhabour river was reopened on August 15, nearly 50,000 refugees – mostly Syrian Kurds – had flooded into Iraqi Kurdistan.
For months, the KRG had been unsuccessfully pleading for international help to deal with the other 150,000 Syrian Kurds who have taken refuge in Kurdistan. It finally began getting the kind of international help it wanted, but only after the refugee crisis created by the reopening of the border, after nearly a three-month closure.
PUK officials say that a day before the border was reopened, a group of five party politicians had gone to the site to assess the situation.
We just wanted people to be able to come in and buy what they needed, not to stay,
They say it was out of concern, following media reports put out by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria – the Syrian arm of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – that Syrian Kurds were being massacred by jihadi groups mixed up in the country’s civil war.
In August, reports of the alleged massacre raised pressure on the KRG to reopen the border. Civil pressure groups inside and outside Kurdistan were joined by the PUK.
But the PUK officials who went to the border claim they had wanted to ensure that the border was open for supplies entering Syria’s Kurdish regions, not to lobby for the KDP to throw open the doors to more refugees.
PUK MP Goran Azad says they had been informed by the KDP that the border was open, but were told by the PYD that it was closed.
“We found both versions were true: The border was open for goods the Kurdistan Regional Government was sending into Syria, and for emergencies. But it was closed for refugees,” Azad says.
After returning home with this message, he says he was surprised to find that the KRG had decided to let more Syrian refugees in.
“We had asked for the border to be opened for help, not for refugees. Syria should not be emptied of Kurds,” Azad says, echoing the fear that if Kurds begin evacuating their regions in predominantly Arab Syria they will never get them back.
PUK politician Gasha Dara Hafid, who had accompanied Azad to the border, sees the opening as an unintended reaction to their visit. “We just wanted people to be able to come in and buy what they needed, not to stay,” she says.
The PUK visit was politically motivated, claims KDP MP Abdelsalam Barwari.
“The campaign for the Kurdish parliamentary elections unofficially started the day the PUK delegation visited the border. Those five politicians were only thinking of the elections,” Barwari says.
“It was intended as anti-propaganda against the KDP. Some media wanted people to think the border was closed completely, but it never was,” he adds.
Some media wanted people to think the border was closed completely, but it never was,
“But when we heard about the massacre we felt it was our duty to let those in danger come,” he says. But he adds that many of the latest refugees have come from areas in Syria that have remained relatively safe from the war.
Azad thinks that by opening the border “a political card was played” against the PUK and in favor of Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani, who also leads the KDP.
“He promised the Syrians help, and now he became the saviour of the Kurds in Syria,” Azad says.
The horror stories put out by the PYD caused people to flee en masse, though an investigation by the KRG has found no evidence of the mass killings.
However, images of the exodus reminded the world of the millions of Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein’s crackdown in 1991. The latest footage finally gave the KRG the attention of the world.
The PUK’s Hafid does not think that was the intention behind reopening the border, “but it did help to get us the attention we needed badly.”
The Kurds worked hard to get the eye of the world, says Inge Colijn, who leads operations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Erbil.
“Cameras were always running. They wanted the whole world to see their work, and also the realities of Iraqi Kurdistan. How well things are going here,” Colijn adds, agreeing that it led directly to more attention.
But she predicts that the focus will not last long.
“Now there are more donors, there is more money. But this is only because of the new influx, and will be gone again in six months’ time,” she says.