SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) — Forced to flee, denied entry to Arab countries, and unable to return to their homeland, former Palestinian residents of Iraq are on the Iraqi-Syrian border, still waiting for somewhere to go.
The appeal arrived via Facebook. It was like a message in a bottle thrown into the sea with little hope. The sender said he was living in a camp on the Iraqi-Syrian border along with some 200 other Palestinian refugees. They had been left stranded on the dangerous frontier between a country that is facing a combined civil war and foreign onslaught, and another that has been occupied and now persecutes them as “Saddam remnants.”
The place is called al-Hol camp. The Palestinian embassy in Lebanon said it knew nothing about these Palestinians. UNRWA said they were not registered with it. How come?
We contacted the young man, named Firas Saidam, to ask. A few days later – the web in Syria is not in good shape – we succeeded. He replied that after Israel occupied Palestine in 1948, the Iraqi government undertook to care for Palestinians in its territory, in return for not contributing to UNRWA.
And so it was. In the 1970s, after the Baath party came power, the Palestinians were accommodated at public expense in state-owned housing in the al-Baladiyat district and some other parts of Baghdad.
But after Iraq was subjected to sanctions in 1990, Firas explained, living conditions worsened badly for Iraqis. Yet Saddam continued to boast of his support for the Palestinians, publicly pledging in 2002, for example, to donate one billion euros to Palestine, at a time when Iraqis were going hungry. “People became very poor,” he said, “and so they started hating us.”
Then came the American occupation, followed by anarchy and the outbreak of sectarian violence, especially after the bombing of Shia shrines. “The Palestinians were in trouble twice over. They were Sunni, and they were ‘Saddam’s pets.’ Either way, we had to escape,” he said.
Did they flee in fear, or actually face reprisals? He sighed and replied: “My dear, out of the two hundred people currently here, 90 percent have had relatives kidnapped or killed.”
Three refugee camps were initially established on the Iraqi-Syrian border: Al-Waleed camp on the Iraqi side; al-Tanf camp in the no-man’s land in between the two countries’ territories, and al-Hol some ten kilometers inside Syria and 50 kilometers east of the town of al-Hasaka.
“We are the left-over people from al-Tanf,” said Firas. He was referring to the closure of the al-Tanf camp by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in early 2010, after it arranged for the resettlement of most of the inhabitants to third countries. Others were moved to al-Hol, where 215 people remain today, including around 100 who have no solution to their cases in sight, according to Firas.
As Firas and fellow Palestinian refugees in Iraq were not placed under UNRWA’s jurisdiction in 1948, they are being dealt with by UNHCR. It provides refugees with one of three possible solutions: return to the country they came from, settlement in the host country, or resettlement in a third. Many of the displaced Palestinians in the border camps opted for the third option after 2006, when the Arab League signed an agreement with UNHCR stating that this would not prejudice their right of return to Palestine. But according to Firas, the resettlement program was discontinued when there were only some 200 cases left to process, due to a change of priorities at UNHCR.
What about returning to Iraq? “That would be impossible,” Firas said. “We heard news just a couple of days ago that they were still raiding our homes in al-Baladiyat and other areas ... Our lives are still in danger there. We cannot.”
How about settling in Syria? “We are grateful to the Syrians for hosting us for seven years even though they were not obliged to,” he said. “But Syria in its current state is not a solution.” Al-Hol camp is adjacent to a Syrian army base that recently came under attack from gunmen (on the night of April 28). Residents are in real danger, and living conditions are poor, with plastic sheets used as roofing. They feel abandoned by UNHCR.
According to Firas, the Commission only began paying serious attention to the plight of the refugees at al-Hol after they staged a strike in 2008. Resettlement then began to places like Canada, Australia and Sweden – as no nearer country was prepared to take them. A handful of the al-Hol camp’s residents have been there since 2006, and are still waiting for countries to accept them.
But with the issue of the Iraqi-Palestinian refugees fading from the media and the international public eye, fewer potential host-states countries have been prepared to consider taking them in. More than two thirds of the 215 remaining at al-Hol are women and children.
UNHCR reportedly tried to promote the idea of arranging for them to be moved permanently to Damascus. But this fell through as a result of events in Syria. While it is unclear if the Commission is indeed still seeking such a solution, it is one the remaining refugees themselves strongly oppose – for legal, practical, personal reasons.
Firas charged that the UNHCR had conveyed the false impression that all the cases in the camp had been resolved. In 2010, it offered some of them a chance of going to the United States, but many turned that down because they had been detained by US forces during the occupation, and for other reasons related to immigration procedures. He said the refugees had tried to reason with UNHCR, but facing an unknown future and worsening conditions, they decided to stage an open-ended protest, possibly leading to a hunger strike.
Their principal demand is to be resettled in countries where they have relatives – mostly outside the Arab world, as the supposedly “fellow” Arab states have refused to receive them, and they cannot go back to their occupied homeland.
In the meantime, they want to be moved to a safe location outside Syria, where having already fled persecution and death in Iraq, they now face new dangers.
Their case, incidentally, has not been taken up by any Palestinian agency, official or unofficial. — www.shafaqna.com