Northern Syria - The Peshkabour border crossing sits perched on the banks of the swirling cold water of the Tigris, which divides Syria’s majority-Kurdish northeast from Iraqi Kurdistan. Little more than a raft is needed to journey across.
Early this year, Iraq formally opened its border with Syria - which, along with all borders in northern Syria, had been closed due to the war - and many Syrians have since fled what remains of their homes to reach the Tigris, only to find the border is closed for them. Thousands of people stand in line, hoping in vain to reach the other side of the river. While Iraqi authorities say the border is open, the country has been turning people away, saying the Syrian refugee camps are already full.
Some of these residents fled their homes only a few kilometres from here, while others travelled for days in harsh conditions to reach the crossing.
“We have no future and our past is literally blown away,” cries Ammar al-Mohandees, standing with her family on the shore of the Tigris. Like thousands of other displaced Syrians, she has pinned her hopes on reaching Iraq. “What is there left for us to do?”
IN VIDEO: Fresh call to help Syrian refugees
Mohamed Annar, a Kurdish police officer in charge of border control, stands in front of a white building that serves as an office for the border police. He faces a long line of Syrians hoping to cross, but is unable to help.
“The other side doesn’t let them enter. Whenever someone intends to cross, the guards at the other side start shooting,” Annar tells Al Jazeera.
As he speaks, women cry hysterically, while men attempt to bribe the border guards. The shore is packed with people; children sometimes play, but more often sit listlessly.
There is no way back for us. They must help us. We aren't animals that can be kept on the shore of a river.
A week ago, al-Mohandees fled the heavily destroyed city of Aleppo, 600kms from the Peshkabour crossing. She left all her belongings and travelled a full day to reach this point, having heard the border was open. Al-Mohandees says she was desperate to leave her war-torn city.
“There is no way back for us,” al-Mohandees tells Al Jazeera, clutching her passport. “They must help us. We aren’t animals that can be kept on the shore of a river.”
Iraqi authorities sometimes give special consideration to those who are ill, or have family on the other side of the Tigris. A green pontoon bridge that once spanned the crossing is now in pieces, spread over Iraqi and Syrian soil. Iraqi soldiers intermittently fire warning shots in the air.
All the other borders across northern Syria are controlled by rebels and closed for crossing, although residents can still get out legally by aeroplane or illegally across the country’s southern borders. Others pay hefty fees to be smuggled into Turkey, through the perilous territory between the two countries. Despite the prospect of living an illegal life in Turkey or elsewhere, an estimated 1,000 Syrians take the smuggling route daily, bringing the number of refugees in neighbouring countries to more than 1.5 million, according to Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Another 6.5 million people have been internally displaced, UNRWA says. For those living in the rebel-held north, there is no solution; they barely have food and almost no humanitarian aid reaches them. “Despite the UN’s demand [for] the Syrian government to permit access of humanitarian aid inside the country, the numbers of people in need is still growing,” Valerie Amos, a UN official for humanitarian affairs, tells Al Jazeera. “[The Syrian government’s] continued withholding of humanitarian aid across the Syrian border is arbitrary, unjustified and contradicts with international law.”
RELATED: Syrian refugees cling to stability in Iraq
Many internally displaced persons (IDPs) seek shelter in empty school buildings bombed by the regime, or in mosques and public buildings. In Khanin, a border town near Peshkabour, dozens have taken refuge in the small Sheik Segra mosque. Every day, the mosque’s imam says, several newly arrived IDPs find shelter here; the total number has surpassed 300.
In the back of the mosque, an old man shakes. The imam says he arrived a week ago, and suffered one epileptic attack after another. Despite his illness, he was unable to cross the border; as he continues shaking, nobody even seems to notice him any more.
“The mosque isn’t big enough to accommodate these people. The number is still climbing, and most of them don’t even have a place to return to,” says the imam, who did not provide his name. “Besides that, it puts a lot of pressure on the community. There is not enough food for hundreds of extra people in a town of only a few thousand.”