The United Nations refugee agency today voiced growing concern for 15,000 Palestinians remaining in Iraq “living in a climate of constant fear,” after a group of 41 of them fleeing Baghdad to escape increasing violence, harassment and targeted killings was blocked at the border with Syria.
“We now have 41 traumatized Palestinians who have spent the past week 250 metres from the Iraqi checkpoint,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. Some do not have travel documents while those of others have expired due to the suspension of renewals or issuance of residence permits.
It was the latest in a long series of alarms raised by the agency for the Palestinians, who fled to Iraq from their homes in newly created Israel in 1948. Some received preferential treatment under ousted President Saddam Hussein, and they have become targets since his overthrow in 2003. There are still an estimated 15,000 in Iraq out of 34,000 in 2003.
“We have spoken out repeatedly over the increasingly dire situation in Iraq, particularly for those who have no possibility of leaving the country, nor any safe haven or support network inside Iraq,” Mr. Redmond said. “The Palestinians are such a group. We call on the Iraqi and Syrian authorities to allow them to leave the country. We also reiterate our plea to neighbouring and resettlement countries and Israel to offer a solution.”
In the latest case, Iraqi border authorities initially refused to allow the group to leave Iraq, citing a lack of proper documentation. The Palestinians have also been told by Iraqi border officials that Syrian authorities should first approve their entry. Only then will the Iraqi side allow them to exit and at least enter the no-man’s land between Iraq and Syria to join an earlier group of 350 Palestinians who have been stuck there since May.
A local tribal leader has provided accommodation, food and water, Iraqi border officials have given some food and water, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is supplying tents, blankets, stoves and jerry cans.
UNHCR has contacted the respective authorities but so far without success. According to Iraqi officials, a recent agreement between Iraq and Syria calls for tight control on the movement of people. Exit and entry permits can reportedly only be granted if authorities in both capitals agree. Both border authorities have told UNHCR that they are not in a position to make an exception and allow the Palestinians in, not even into no-man's land.
In another development, the agency voiced “extreme concern” at Syria’s extradition to Iran of four Iranians of Arab descent who had earlier been recognized as refugees, at least one of whom is reportedly facing execution.
“Recent human rights reports have expressed concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Khuzestan province in Iran, home to nearly 2 million Iranians of Arab descent,” Mr. Redmond said.
Two of the four had managed to call their family members and tell them they had been detained immediately on arrival and were now awaiting their sentence. One reportedly told a relative that he was “about to be executed.”
“UNHCR is extremely worried about the four refugees,” Mr. Redmond said. “Extradition does not mean that a refugee or asylum seeker loses his or her international protection status. UNHCR has a mandate to intervene in these cases and therefore strongly appeals to Iranian authorities to ensure the well-being of the four and allow for a fair trial and the right to due process.
“UNHCR also appeals for access to the four refugees and we are prepared to find alternative solutions for them,” he added, also calling on Syria to abide by its obligations under international law in line with the principle of non-refoulement under which no refugees or asylum seekers whose cases have not yet been properly assessed can be forcibly returned to a country where their life or liberty could be in danger.