BAGHDAD — Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds swarmed across a bridge into neighboring Iraq's northern self-ruled Kurdish region over the past few days in one of the biggest waves of refugees since the rebellion against President Bashar Assad began, U.N. officials said Monday.
The sudden exodus of around 30,000 Syrians amid the summer heat has created desperate conditions and left aid agencies and the regional government struggling to accommodate them, illustrating the huge strain the 2½-year-old Syrian conflict has put on neighboring countries.
The mostly Kurdish men, women and children who made the trek join some 1.9 million Syrians who already have found refuge abroad from Syria's relentless carnage.
"This is an unprecedented influx of refugees, and the main concern is that so many of them are stuck out in the open at the border or in emergency reception areas with limited, if any, access to basic services," said Alan Paul, a team leader for the Britain-based charity Save the Children.
The United Nations said the reason for this flow, which began five days ago and continued unabated Monday, is unclear. But Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria have been engulfed by fighting in recent months between Kurdish militias and Islamic extremist rebel factions with links to al-Qaida. Dozens have been killed.
On Monday, activists said fighters from al-Qaida-linked groups shelled areas in the predominantly Kurdish town of Ras al-Ayn with mortars and artillery.
"Syrian refugees are still pouring into Iraq's northern Kurdish region in huge numbers, and most of them are women and children," said Youssef Mahmoud, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Iraq's Kurdish region.
"Today, some 3,000 Syrian refugees crossed the borders, and that has brought the number to around 30,000 refugees since Thursday," he said.
The latest wave has brought the overall number of Syrian refugees in the Kurdish region to around 195,000, he added.