When solutions are not solutions

Palestinian Refugees stranded in and fleeing from Iraq

It is to everyone's dishonour that these human beings are still rotting in Al Tanf, in Al Walid, in Ruweished and -worst of all – in Baghdad where one or more is being murdered virtually every day. Rupert Colville, “Shame, How the world has turned its back on the Palestinian refugees in Iraq”, Refugees, No. 146, issue 2, 2007, p. 24.

 In Baghdad, horror reports continued to emerge, as more Palestinians flee abduction, hostage-taking, torture and killing.(1) Palestinian refugees are persecuted by Iraqi forces and the occupying power (also known as the Multi-National Force) on suspicion of involvement with alleged Sunni insurgents. Most Palestinian refugees detained by Iraqi or US occupation forces have not been charged with any offences or taken to court. Lawyers of Palestinian refugees have also been threatened and, in some instances, killed.(2) Palestinian refugees are also targeted by Shi'a political and religious groups, such as the group of Muqtada al-Sadr (Mahdi army) and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Badr organization), who resent the treatment Palestinians received under Saddam's regime. Neither the Iraqi government nor the US-led occupying forces are able or willing to protect Palestinian refugees.

UNHCR is particularly concerned that Palestinian refugees as well as Iranian Ahwazi refugees “are increasingly targeted and becoming inaccessible in the centre and south.”(3) Under these conditions, the provision of basic assistance and protection inside the country becomes practically impossible.

Moreover, since 2004, most Palestinian refugees have been unable to enter Jordan and Syria, and have been stranded in camps along the borders and more recently, in the al Walid camp, three kilometres away from the Syrian border. As of October 2007, their number had swelled to over 1,600 persons. The situation in the al Walid camp is appalling: people lack water and food; there is no medical or psychological treatment (the nearest hospital is four hours away and the journey is dangerous); refugees are subjected to attacks and intimidation by armed groups; children are forced into prostitution by local sheikhs and girls and women are sexually harassed; tents are overcrowded; the area is infested with scorpions and venomous snakes (over 70 persons have been bitten); temperature can rise to 50ºC in summer; and UNHCR has only limited access to the camp, sometimes only once a month because of security concerns.

Al Tanf camp, while in a relatively better situation, still offers precarious living conditions. Three firessincethebeginningoftheyearhavedevastatedthecamp,includingoneon9October, which injured 25 people and destroyed 53 tents housing 11 families. The fire also destroyed all that remained of the refugees’ personal documents and possessions. According to UNHCR, this latest fire“ just added to an increasing atmosphere of despair and desperation at the camp.”(4)

Some Palestinian refugees who have attempted to enter Jordan and Syria with forged passports have been sent back to Iraq, in violation of the principle of non-refoulement.(5) Allegations of forced return by the International Organizations for Migration (IOM) of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon to Iraq have also been raised.(6)

Those who have managed to flee have reportedly used smuggling rings to reach European and Asian countries. But human smuggling is dangerous; thirteen bodies, most likely of Palestinian refugees from Iraq, were recovered on the coast of Italy after their boats, carrying at least 127 persons in search of safety, had broken apart.(7) It is also very costly: a journey from Turkey to a European country can cost between US$8,000-10,000. Palestinian refugees reaching countries without any assistance and protection from UNHCR or an international organization are often left in limbo in cultures and societies they know little about, and without legal status and the means to support themselves.(8) The fact that Palestinian refugees and many other Iraqi refugees resort to underground and dangerous ways to seek safety is telling of the level and quality of protection afforded.

UNHCR's assistance and protection activities are limited not only because of security constraints in Iraq, but also because of a lack of funding. As violence in Iraq worsens, “the mass displacement of Iraqis that was feared in 2003 is now occurring — but without the international concern that it deserves.”(9) For instance, of the over 2.2 million persons displaced outside Iraq, UNHCR has only been able to register approximately 177,000 in Syria and Jordan as of October 2007.(10) The whereabouts of most Palestinian refugees from Iraq are unknown to the Agency.

Meanwhile, UNHCR recognizes and is looking at all possible durable and temporary solutions. The Agency is mainly focussing on temporary protection and relocation as these are considered the most feasible options at the moment. Few countries, however, are willing to offer temporary protection or relocate Palestinian refugees. Fewer still are willing to pressure Israel to allow the refugees to return to their homes of origin. The UN, including UNHCR, and the vast majority of international NGOs recognize that Palestinian refugees have a right to return to their homes of origin. Yet, political will among states to implement this right is lacking.

For its part, Israel may have agreed to allow some 31 Palestinian refugees to enter the occupied West Bank. This, however, would not constitute the exercise of one's right to return, as the refugees mainly originate from what is now Israel. The details of the Israeli offer are unclear, but it seems that the refugees entering the occupied West Bank would be asked to relinquish all claims of return and restitution. If this is true, Israel's offer would violate the fundamental rights of these refugees.

Some countries, such as Syria, Jordan, Brazil and Canada have generously agreed to take in Palestinian refugees and Chile (100 persons) and other European countries have said they are also willing to welcome Palestinian refugees, but none have expressed their willingness to welcome all or most Palestinian refugees from Iraq. Refugees relocated to Brazil in September and October have been settled in Sao Paulo state and Rio Grande do Sul and received rented accommodation, furniture and material assistance for up to 24 months. A network of volunteers and local communities has also been established to provide moral support and facilitate integration.

Sudan's President, Omar Bashir, offered in October 2007 to take in Palestinian refugees stranded on the border with Syria, although the details of the offer are still sketchy. This has, however, already been rejected by Palestinian refugees from the al Tanf camp, who argue that Sudan is not a sustainable option, because it has itself generated over 2.5 million refugees and the government is guilty of gross violations of human and humanitarian law. Refugees at the al Walid camp have not yet expressed their opinion, but they too appeared reluctant to go to Sudan.

In many ways, Sudan is neither safe nor able to accommodate the refugees, as more conflict between the government and rebel groups is expected and resources are inadequate to meet the needs of the refugees, many of whom are vulnerable and need medical assistance. Because of the various sanctions against the government, it is very difficult for international aid agencies to operate in areas of the country controlled by the government of Sudan. Getting NGOs to assist UNHCR operations to benefit these Palestinians will be almost impossible in Sudan, whereas it would be welcomed in other countries. It might also be difficult for UNHCR to access and protect the refugees would the situation further deteriorate. Moreover, Sudan is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the status of Refugees and the legal status of Palestinian refugees in Sudan is not clear, thus making their stay in Sudan wholly at the whim of the government.

Another and perhaps more promising solution might be found in Yemen. Indeed, Yemen has informally indicated its willingness to admit Palestinian refugees from Iraq into its territory as a temporary protection and/or en route to other destinations, i.e., evacuation point. This option is likely to be accepted by most refugees and would allow UNHCR and other organizations to have access to the refugees, especially those who are vulnerable and with severe needs. Yemen, however, requires the financial and logistical support of UNHCR and a formal request from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in order to open its border. According to available information, the PLO has not yet approached the government of Yemen. It is hoped that in the near future, Palestinian refugees from Iraq will be able to seek safety in Yemen.

In all cases, the search for temporary protection and durable solutions should involve the refugees; they should be informed, consulted and their wishes respected.


Karine Mac Allister is Coordinator for Legal Advocacy at Badil Resource Center.


(1) See Amnesty International, “Iraq: human rights abuses against Palestinian refugees,” AI Index: MDE 14/030/2007, October 2007, pp. 7-13.

(2) UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), Human Rights Report, 1 April- 30 June 2007, pp. 13-14.

(3) UNHCR, “Iraq: Al Tanf fire highlight precarious condition of Palestinian refugees”, summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson, Jennifer Pagonis, Press Briefing,9October2007,Geneva.

(4) UNHCR Global Appeal 2007, Iraq, p. 198.

(5) See Amnesty International, “Iraq: human rights abuses against Palestinian refugees,” AI Index: MDE 14/030/2007, October 2007, p. 9. This has also been confirmed during an interview with a Palestinian refugee from Iraq.

(6) Until 2005, UNHCR worked with the IOM to return Palestinian refugees to Iraq, but has since stopped. Discussion during session on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at the UNHCR NGO Consultations in Geneva, 26-28 September.

(7) “13 Palestinians found dead after boat sinks off near Italy”, AFP in Daily Star, 29 October 2007.

(8) See Zafarul Islam Khan, “Palestinian Diaspora in India”, islamonline, New Delhi.

(9) UNHCR Global Appeal 2007, Iraq, p. 198.

(10) See Ron Redmond, “Iraq: Pressure on safe havens inside and outside fuels fears of increased internal displacement”, summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond, press briefing,23October 2007, Geneva

Very partial data on Palestinian refugees in and fleeingIraq

 In 2003, there were between 34,000 and 90,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq. Their exact number and current whereabouts are unknown. (see “Searching for Solutions for Palestinian Refugees Stuck in and Fleeing Iraq”, al Majdal, issue No.33, Spring 2007).

Syria: up to 2,500-3,000 persons in the country.

al Hol camp (Syria): 310 persons.

Iraq: between 12,000-13,000 persons.

al Walid camp (Iraq): 1,600 persons.

al Tanf camp (Iraq-Syrian border): 437 persons.

Jordan: 389 persons who have a Jordanian spouse,

but the number is probably higher.

Ruweished camp: Closed as of October 2007.

Lebanon: 300-400 persons.

Turkey: Probably a few hundred.

India: 100 persons (unclear).

Canada: 74 persons (54 persons from Ruweished camp

and 20 through private sponsorship).

Brazil: 108 persons from Ruweished camp.

New Zealand: 22 persons from Ruweished camp.

Italy: At least 110 persons.

Norway: Two families for medical cases,

possibly around 16 persons.

Spain: 6 persons.

Greece: Probably a few dozen.

Sweden: Probably a few dozen.

Thailand: Few cases.