UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Palestinian refugees complain of persecution and seek to leave
DAMASCUS, 20 October 2005 (IRIN) - Representatives of the 40,000 Palestinian refugees living in Iraq say they have suffered harassment and persecution at the hands of security forces and ordinary Iraqi people since the fall of Saddam Hussein two years ago.
A delegation of them travelled to the Syrian capital Damascus in July to seek help from the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Both organisations were sympathetic, but said there was little they could do to help since they had closed their offices in Baghdad as a result of deteriorating security in the Iraqi capital.
Now some Palestinians living in Iraq have decided spontaneously to leave. But that is not easy since none of them possess passports or other valid travel documents, posing yet another problem.
A group of 19 Palestinian refugees attempting to travel overland to Syria has been stuck at the al-Waleed border post since 4 October because they do not have the right papers.
“We haven’t been allowed into Syria because the Palestinians don’t have passports,” said Sheila Provencher, an American aid worker with the NGO Christian Peacemaker Teams, who accompanied the group on a bus from Baghdad.
“We are literally in the middle of no-mans land and we don’t know what is going to happen. Everybody is sick right now because it’s very hot during the day and very cold at night. It’s desert with sand as far as you can see. They are mentally exhausted because they are in limbo,” Provencher said.
The UNHCR said it had provided the group with tents, blankets and food and was negotiating with the Syrian authorities to find a solution to their problem.”
“We are still providing assistance to the Palestinians and we are still working with the Syrians on finding a solution,” UNHCR spokesman Abdelhamid el-Ouali told IRIN in Damascus on Wednesday.
“I’m optimistic we’ll be able to find a solution by next week,” he added.
The refugees, who include a one-year-old baby and a 73-year-old man, had been provided with kitchen and toilet facilities and a doctor had visited them twice, el-Ouali said.
General Madhar Amed, the Head of Immigration at the Syrian Interior Ministry, was sympathetic, but firm.
“No state in the world will allow people to enter its land without proper papers,” he said. “Syria has asked all Iraqi refugees in Syria for papers which indicate their name and nationality. For those Palestinian refugees on the Syrian-Iraqi border, I cannot say what the solution will be.”
One of the Palestinians seeking to leave Iraq is Thair Shafiq, a 34-year-old cartoonist, who led the Palestinian delegation to Damascus in July to seek help from the UNHCR and ICRC.
On that occasion, he slipped across the border discreetly on a forged passport.
But this time he and the other 18 Palestinians accompanying came empty-handed in a bus, accompanied by three US aid workers from Christian Peacemaker Teams and an Iraqi aid worker from Muslim Peacemaker Teams to help argue their case.
“I feel the Syrian government will allow us across the border,” Shafiq told IRIN by telephone from the border. “They show us some concern and look at things from a humanitarian point of view. We are comfortable and safe now, but I will be happy when the first of us crosses the border.”
Change in Iraqi attitude
During his first trip to Syria in July, Shafiq complained that following the US-led invasion in 2003 there had been a sea-change in the Iraqis’ attitude to Palestinian refugees, many of whom had lived happily in the country since the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.
Shafiq cited the murder of 20 Palestinians by Iraqi troops and civilians and the eviction of many other Palestinians from their homes by landlords who were angry that Saddam had allowed them to live there on subsidised rents.
“We loved Iraq – we were born there. It pained us to see the US invasion,” Shafiq told IRIN during his July visit to Damascus.
“But now, the way Iraq has treated us, we want to live anywhere but there. Under Saddam we could not own cars or houses, but accommodation was subsidised. Saddam did only one thing for the Palestinians – safety.”
“We lived with the Iraqis for more than 50 years, but we never knew them, they had a lot of hatred inside them,” he continued.
“After Saddam fell and the US occupied, the Iraqis felt they could do whatever they wanted with us. They are arresting, torturing and killing us, shooting us in the night. They arrest people and make them pay to be released. It is just blackmail!”
Shafiq cited one incident in October 2004 when five Palestinians, including three brothers and their uncle, were gunned down in broad daylight as they left their electronics shop in Baghdad.
He also claimed that scores of Palestinians were now forced to live in tents after being evicted by their landlords.
Influential Shi’ite Muslim leaders, such as Lebanese cleric Mohammed Hassin Fadel Allah, who was born in Iraq, have called in newspapers for an end to the persecution of Palestinians, but to little avail.
Shafiq said the Palestinians took their grievances to the US military authorities in Iraq, who were sympathetic, but could not promise concrete action.
Sympathy from the US army
He showed a copy of a memorandum written by US army captain Christopher Mahaffey following his meeting with Palestinian representatives in Baghdad on 20 March.
In this document, Mahaffey referred to the Palestinians’
“constant harassment by the Iraqi people.”
“They have been the victims of murder, kidnappings and intimidation by the Iraqi populace and receive little to no assistance from the Iraqi police,” the US army officer wrote. “My recommendation is we support these people.”
Mahaffey noted that the Palestinians in Iraq “cannot travel and have only one form of legal identification which must be renewed every six months through the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.”
Hashimy Salman, a senior official at the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights, said in Baghdad;
“We have received hundreds of reports and information concerning discrimination against Palestinians in our ministry. Unfortunately, in these difficult circumstances in the country, we cannot analyse each case separately, but we call on the government to open its eyes to the situation and prevent those people without their own land from being forgotten and excluded from the world.”
Tortured to death
Fatima Amoura, a Palestinian refugee in Iraq who accompanied Shafiq on his mission to Damascus earlier this year, said then that her own brother in law, Zuher Hassan al-Hazna, had died in custody at the beginning.
She said the 52 year-old metal worker was arrested by Iraqi troops in early July, along with 26 other Palestinians.
“They came to arrest him at 1 am,” she said. “Nobody knows why. Eight days later he was dead. He was not a political man.”
“The army prevented his body from being returned to the family until they signed a paper saying they found him dead in the street. And then they brought him. He had been tortured.”
Although there is a special UN body responsible for Palestinian refugees, the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), UNHCR is responsible for all the refugees in Iraq, said Dietrun Gunther, UNHCR’s Senior Protection Officer in Damascus.
However, since insurgents bombed the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, the UNHCR has withdrawn all its staff from Iraq, which was now covered by its mission in Jordan, she said.
“This specific group is probably more vulnerable than any other in Iraq as they are already refugees there, “Gunther said.
But she added that for the time being there was little that UNHCR could do to help them.
“We see that many of the Palestinians in Iraq have suffered a lot. UNHCR has a certain obligation towards them, although for the time being we are in a difficult situation. We don’t have an international office in Iraq,” Gunther noted.
The ICRC said it was similarly powerless to help.
"Unfortunately, we have no activities with Palestinian civilians,” said a spokeswoman for the Red Cross Iraq office in Amman, Jordan. “We don’t have a full presence in Iraq after the attacks on our offices in October 2003."
Themes: (IRIN) Human Rights, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs
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