Displaced Iraqi Shiite Turkmen gather near their belongings at a temporary camp set up to shelter people fleeing violence in northern Iraq in Aski Kalak, 40 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil, on June 27, 2014
Displaced Iraqi Shiite Turkmen gather near their belongings at a temporary camp set up to shelter people fleeing violence in northern Iraq in Aski Kalak, 40 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil, on June 27, 2014 © Karim Sahib - AFP/File
Displaced Iraqi Shiite Turkmen gather near their belongings at a temporary camp set up to shelter people fleeing violence in northern Iraq in Aski Kalak, 40 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil, on June 27, 2014
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AFP
Last updated: July 2, 2014

Fleeing Shiite Turkmen caught in Iraq limbo

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 Kurdish authorities and insurgents.

The families said they initially fled Tal Afar, part of a swathe of territory across five provinces which 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, they told AFP.

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 the jihadist Islamic State (IS) 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 Arbil 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 recent 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 Arbil.

"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.

Amnesty International, which has expressed concern that the region's minorities were being specifically targeted by IS, said Wednesday most of the families stranded on the edge of Iraqi Kurdistan were Turkmen.

The Kurdistan regional government has "an obligation to allow Iraqi civilians seeking to flee the fighting to enter or transit through KRG areas," said Donatella Rovera, the London-based rights watchdog's Senior Crisis Response Adviser.

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