Syrian Refugees on the border with the Kurdistan Region. Photo: Carl Drott
SIMELKA BORDER, Syria - Since early January, the border crossing at Simelka (Peshkhabour) is open for the movement of people in both directions, but the administrations on both sides co-operate to keep the traffic limited in scope.
Tens of thousands of refugees crossed the border in August last year, when the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq suddenly allowed everyone who wanted to cross over the pontoon bridge. The bridge was then closed, supposedly for maintenance.
Mistefa Abdelaziz, who is responsible for the Syrian side of the border crossing, points out that people have mainly fled because of economic problems, which could be significantly alleviated if the KRG would allow trade and not only aid across the border.
The border was opened for aid shipments in early January, after it had been closed for all goods since May. However, there is a physical limitation on all kinds of traffic, as the pontoon bridge has still not been repaired. Instead of simply driving over the Peshkhabour river with trucks, all cargo has to be offloaded and carried down to a small ferry.
Almost 220,000 Syrian refugees are registered in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, some are now returning again, three years into the Syrian civil war between opposition forces and the Bashar Assad regime.
However, the security situation has remained generally good in the Syrian Kurdish regions, which have declared autonomy and are run by a local government, while life in the refugee camps has proved hard for many.
There is now a “one in, one out” policy for the movement of people: roughly 300-350 people cross the border every day, in both directions.
“During the chaos of these three years, many people left the country without coming back,” says Abdelaziz. “Some of them were criminals, who fled because there were ongoing legal processes against them.”
For this and other reasons, a permit from the Asayish (police) is now needed in order to leave the Syrian Kurdish regions, or Rojava. Those who wish to leave need a valid reason, and they are expected to come back again.
“The first priority is given to people who need healthcare and cannot be treated here,” Abdelaziz explains. “Then we allow visitors who have one part of their family on the other side.”
However, what the government on neither side seems to acknowledge is that some of the people who are trying to get across the border have fled from fighting and bombardment and are now living in very difficult conditions.
In the village of Gir Bilat near the border, a mosque has been converted into a temporary shelter for refugees. A child was recently born here. The refugees state that they have not received any support from the local authorities, except bread and some blankets.
Fifty families live here, or about 250 people. Four families are from the village of Kafar Saghir outside Aleppo, the rest are from Aleppo city. All of them are Kurds.
“The regime bombed our areas with barrels of explosives and we could not do anything, so we ran away,” says one man, while showing a video clip of a neighbourhood completely in ruins.
In Aleppo and the surrounding area, a seemingly never ending battle is ongoing between regime forces and various rebel factions.
“You cannot imagine the situation,” says another man. “We could never predict what would happen the next day.”
In order to get to Gir Bilat, the refugees had to undertake a long and dangerous journey. They went first to Afrin, then crossed the border into Turkey, travelled eastwards and finally went back over the border into Syria again. They want to go to the Kurdistan Region, where they expect to feel more welcome than in Turkey.
Every morning, the refugees assemble at the border to wait for their turn to be shipped over. Many have been coming here every day for weeks – in some cases over a month. Some choose to remain at the border overnight and sleep outdoors, rather than return to the overcrowded mosque in Gir Bilat.
“Those who have relatives on the other side can receive an invitation from them, otherwise we are not allowed to cross,” says one man. “They say that there is no space in the camps, but that we can go and rent a place,” adds another.
Refugees complain that entry to the Kurdistan Region is only open to those who can pay for their stay there, not to refugees who have nowhere else to turn.