Iraq: UN agency raises third alarm in week at ‘unrelenting violence’ against Palestinians
“Conditions at the border are atrocious,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva, again urging the international community, including neighbouring and resettlement countries, to help find solutions and safety for refugees unable to remain inside Iraq.
“It's cold. Clean water has to be trucked in. There is limited access to food. Tents are crowded and unhygienic. Tensions are high. The refugees feel very insecure and some report having been victimized by security officials near the border. The group is in a very vulnerable situation with no solution in sight,” she said.
Over the past year UNHCR has voiced mounting alarm for the Palestinians, who fled to Iraq following the creation of Israel in 1948. Some received preferential treatment under ousted President Saddam Hussein, and they have become targets for attack since his overthrow in 2003. Nearly 20,000 of them have already fled the country but an estimated 15,000 still remain in the country, mostly in Baghdad.
“Since 2003, many Palestinians have been kidnapped, tortured or killed, and violent threats against them have become routine,” Ms. Pagonis said.
In the latest incident, at least 73 terrified refugees arrived at the border after 30 Palestinian men, 17 of them sheltered in a Baghdad apartment building rented by UNHCR, were taken away on Tuesday by men dressed in Iraqi security force uniforms and driving security vehicles. They were later released but by Wednesday all Palestinians in the apartment building had fled their homes.
The new arrivals brought to 593 the number of Palestinians stuck at the border, many of them for months. Syria has denied them access and they refuse to return to Baghdad. “Along with ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] and other partners, we are ensuring that enough food, water and relief items are on site,” Ms. Pagonis said. “Additional tents are also being delivered.”
Estimates of the number killed since 2003 vary widely. In late December, the Palestinian embassy in Baghdad provided UNHCR with a list of 161 people killed there. Earlier this week, the Head of Refugee Affairs for the Palestine Liberation Organization said 520 hade been killed 140 others wounded by Shiite militias.
There have been at least two attacks on Palestinian residential compounds over the past two months, including an armed assault in December in which at least nine Palestinians were reportedly killed and 20 wounded.
“We have several reports of kidnappings and murders of Palestinians, some of whose bodies were found with signs of torture,” Ms. Pagonis said. “Death threats have increased. Harassment at work has prompted some to stop working, leaving them without a livelihood.
UNHCR is also deeply concerned about the continued survival prospects of 280 Syrian Arabs registered with the agency in Baghdad who are also facing increasing militia-led violence. These refugees arrived in successive waves beginning in 1954, and were granted asylum in Iraq.
“UNHCR has repeatedly urged all parties, including the [United States-led] multinational forces, the Ministry of Interior and Iraqi security forces, to provide more protection and help to refugees throughout the country,” Ms. Pagonis said. “We also need more rapid and transparent information on any of those detained during military or police actions, particularly with the increase in abductions by unidentified militiamen posing as security agents.”