GENEVA — Thousands of Syrians are flowing across the border into Iraq's Kurdish region to escape battles between jihadists and Kurd forces in their homeland, the UN refugee agency said Sunday.
The UN's refugee agency reported a "river" of Syrians crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan, after more than 15,000 entered Iraq on Thursday and Saturday, figures which the UNHCR said were unprecedented.
"UN refugee agency staff at Sahela today report what appears like a river of people coming towards the border," said Claire Bourgeois, UNHCR's Iraq representative, referring to a border crossing in north Iraq.
"UNHCR is witnessing a major exodus from Syria over the past few days unlike anything we have witnessed entering Iraq previously."
The UN refugee agency said in a statement that the 15,000 who crossed into Iraq on Thursday and Saturday were in addition to about 154,000 Syrian refugees already registered in Iraq.
Syrian war refugees' access to Iraq has been erratic, with local political tensions and fears of a spillover of the conflict leading Kurdistan region authorities to shut the border in May.
Some restrictions were eased last month to allow Syrians stuck in their homeland to join family members already in Iraq, but numbers seeking to cross the border had remained relatively low.
Syria's Kurds have tried to avoid antagonizing forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad or rebels fighting to overthrow him, but there has been fierce fighting in recent weeks between Kurdish forces and the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, which is also fighting Assad.
All told, more than 1.9 million Syrians have fled their homeland's 29-month-old civil war, with most seeking a haven in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.