Iraqis flee capital for Kurdistan

ERBIL — A Christian shopkeeper who walks with a limp, Adison Brikha fled Baghdad after he was beaten in his shop. He made it to Erbil, in relatively peaceful Iraqi Kurdistan — but now he’s begging for work.

“The gunmen broke into my shop in New Baghdad district and beat me brutally. It was obvious that Christians are no longer wanted in Baghdad,” said Brikha, who can barely pay the rent for a tiny house in Erbil for his family of five.

“I used to own a shop and now I’m begging people to let me work even as a servant or a labourer, but no one will take me because my foot is crippled,” he said, through tears.

Tens of thousands of people have fled Baghdad, the epicentre of violence in Iraq. The United Nations, launching an appeal for aid for Iraqis who have fled their homes or left the country, said this month about one in eight Iraqis is now displaced.

It said the exodus is the largest long-term movement of people in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948.

Many, including non-Kurds, have taken refuge in Kurdistan — a largely autonomous region in the northern mountains that has been a haven from attacks plaguing other areas since the US invasion of 2003.

But as refugee numbers grow, authorities in Erbil, the Kurdish capital with a population of about a million, are beginning to feel the strain.

“Over the last two weeks, more than 9,000 people came to Erbil escaping from Baghdad as refugees, and they are mainly Sunnis and Christians,” Imad Marouf, head of the disaster relief programme in Erbil, part of the Iraqi Red Crescent, told Reuters.

The UN says nearly 500,000 people fled to other areas within Iraq last year, mostly since the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra prompted a surge in violence.

While much of the violence is between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, others have been caught up in it.

In a human rights report on January 16, the United Nations said that of the 1.5 million Assyrian Christians living in Iraq before 2003, half had fled the country and many of the rest were moving to “safe areas” in the north of Iraq.

The main Chaldean Christian College and seminary in Baghdad — closed for months due to threats and violence — relocated to Erbil this month, according to Bishop Rabban Qas of Erbil.

Both Christians and Muslims were targets of violence.

“The continuous deterioration of security in Baghdad and the kidnapping of six priests by gunmen forced us to move these Christian institutes to Erbil,” he told Reuters.

“The students … could not attend classes because of the lack of security which made us move to Erbil,” he said.

Marouf said his office had registered more than 5,000 families — or around 30,000 people — who fled to Erbil over the last two years.

He said hundreds more families — particularly of doctors, professors and businessmen — had not registered as refugees and declined handouts because they had found jobs in Erbil.

Deputy provincial governor Tahir Abdullah said resources were lacking to help so many refugees, but that authorities were trying at least to provide logistical help, such as transferring ration cards so families can still get subsidised food.

“We have urged the UN bodies in the north to help the refugees and build a camp for those who can’t afford to pay to rent a house. Some families are staying out in the open,” Abdullah told Reuters.

Marouf said he had heard of an extended family of 49 people living squeezed into a single residence of 100 square metres: “They couldn’t find a better place to live.” Concerned by the flood of refugees, Kurdish authorities have imposed new restrictions on who can settle in the area, for instance requiring a Kurdish sponsor for each family.

“The bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra caused thousands of families to flee and head to the Kurdish areas,” said Yazgar Raouf, head of the residency office in Erbil, adding that the influx had raised security concerns.

“We started to impose new regulations relating to immigrants since September 2004 to secure the Kurdish region from any terrorist infiltration, which could destabilise security.”

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