This is a guest post by Gsirrah.
At the moment so much is being said by so many people about the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, but none of them seem to care about another group of Palestinians who very rarely make the news but whose suffering is no less real:
After 18 members of her family were brutally murdered by Shi’ite militiamen in Baghdad, Nadia Othman, a 36-year-old Palestinian mother of three, finally managed to escape to Jordan together with hundreds of Palestinian families that had been living in Iraq for decades.
In 2006, more than 600 Palestinians were killed in the Iraqi capital in what Palestinian leaders and political activists are describing as a “systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing.” […]
Today, Nadia said, “There are less than 10,000 Palestinians living in Iraq and most of them are afraid to walk out of their homes. My sister, who stayed behind, told me this week that she hasn’t left her apartment in the Baladiyat suburb of Baghdad for the past three weeks for fear of being killed by Shi’ite militiamen. I’m very concerned for the safety of my mother and five brothers who have still not been able to escape from Iraq.”
Nadia’s decision to leave her home came shortly after one of her brothers, Muhammad Rashid, was killed by Shi’ite gunmen as he was on his way to the school where he worked as an Arabic language teacher.
“The murderers stopped him in the street, asked for his ID documents, and when they saw that he was a Palestinian refugee, they immediately fired three bullets at his head,” she said. “On the same day, they kidnapped and murdered Farid Al-Sayed, chairman of the Palestinian-controlled Haifa Sports Club in Iraq.”
Thousands of Palestinians have been forced to flee Iraq, either to surrounding countries or to camps on the Syria-Iraq border: al-Hol (inside the Syrian borders), al-Tanf (in no-man’s-land), or al-Waleed (inside Iraq). The scale of this situation is shown by the most recent UNHCR figures, from October last year:
Of the estimated 34,000 Palestinians in Iraq in 2003, less than 15,000 remain in Iraq – including 2,943 Palestinian refugees currently living in the border camps at the Iraq-Syrian border. Of those in the border camps, 358 families (1,278 persons) are considered to be highly vulnerable – having life-threatening diseases, needing urgent medical treatment or fearing persecution if they return – and therefore are in urgent need of resettlement.
The majority fled Baghdad since 2003 because of threats, torture, detention, or after friends and family members were killed. The steady drain on financial resources has forced middle class families into the ranks of the poor, needing housing, food, medical, and cash assistance. And things have got worse since then, with the border camps being hit by flooding.
This is how Amnesty International described the situation in the camps at the end of last year:
Al Hol was originally built by the Syrian government for refugees it anticipated would flee from Iraq during the first Gulf War. It now houses about 340 Palestinians. Its location in Syria provides a measure of protection and stability compared to Al Tanf and Al Waleed. The problems stem from the camp’s extreme isolation and the restrictions placed by the Syrian government on the rights of the residents to travel and work. The Palestinians here had their travel documents confiscated by the Syrian government upon arrival. The residents are quite frustrated with their isolation and the fact that although they were the first group to leave Iraq they have yet to benefit from resettlement opportunities.
Al Tanf, with a population of 940, is one of the worst situated refugee camps in the world. It lies in the no-man’s-land between Syria and Iraq. It is completely exposed on one side to a highway, where trucks alternately speed by or sit idle for hours at a time waiting to make the border crossing. The site itself is in a culvert about 10 feet below the highway, making it a flood plain when it rains heavily. While about 300 people have been resettled out of the camp over the past year, the camp population is actually increasing as Palestinian refugees from Iraq are forced out of Damascus into the camp due to deportation by the Syrian authorities, severe economic hardship, and the lure of a solution to their tenuous situation.
Al Waleed, located inside Iraq just across the border from Al Tanf, was the last of the three camps to be established when the Iraqi authorities decided to prevent Palestinians from leaving Iraq altogether. With a population of 1,750, it is the largest of the three. Like Al Tanf, it is located along the highway and has the added disadvantage of being close to a Multi-National Forces (MNF) military base, which does not provide security for refugees. Conditions in the camp have been abysmal, with poor shelter and lack of water and sanitation facilities, but the UNHCR has just facilitated the transfer of the residents to a new camp on the other side of the highway. The school and health clinic remain in the original location, however, and the worry is that children will risk the dash across the highway rather than using an underpass that requires a round trip walk of nearly a kilometre. But the fundamental problem with Al Waleed is that it is in Iraq, where Palestinians remain highly vulnerable to violence from militias and the government.
If you remain in any doubt about the terrible conditions of those living in the camps, read about the plight of two Palestinian boys who died whilst waiting for resettlement; or about Ahmed Mohammad, who lost his pregnant wife when fire raced through the crammed together, overcrowded tents. He could only rescue his son.
Between 2006 and 2008, only 381 Palestinians could be resettled by UNHCR. Few countries want to help them escape the torture and targetted killings they face in Iraq. Iceland, Sweden, Brazil, and Chile are some of the very few to have stepped up to the mark. Oh, and Israel has allowed “dozens” to travel to the West Bank whilst the British government has recently agreed to accept 30 widows with children from the border camps. Much as these countries are to be praised, not nearly enough is being done yet.
But nobody seems to care about this. In January 2007, this alert from UNHCR appeared on Reuters. Only the Washington Post wrote an article in response. The next attempt to raise awareness of the Palestinians in Iraq was even less successful: in March 2008 UNHCR put out this alert and only the Kuwaiti News Agency responded. Certainly, there has been some coverage of this story, notably from the Jerusalem Post and the IHT/NY Times but, despite a couple of articles in the UK press this month, such examples remain rare and public awareness close to non-existent.
Which raises the question – with so many people focussed on the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, why does nobody give a damn about Palestinians when they are in Iraq?
UNHCR, the Red Crescent and others are doing an admirable job supporting them, but the Palestinians in these camps and the other Palestinians in Iraq need a permanent, safe home – this will only happen if the outside world knows and cares that they exist.
At the moment it doesn’t.