A refugee sits near the fence of Rweished camp, 50 km off the Jordanian / Iraqi border. (Photo: Maria Font de Matas IRIN)
On the border between Iraq/Jordan and Iraq/Syria today live hundreds of Palestinian families who fled the US war to find themselves stranded in no-mans land. These families live in tents, in squalor, with little certainty or hope for the future, like their parents and grandparents did after their expulsion from their own homeland in the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) by the Israelis. The Al-Hol, Al-Tanaf, Al-Ruweished and Al-Walid refugee camps in the Iraqi desert are examples of the on-going Nakba that Palestinian refugees face. The fate of the 34,000 Palestinian refugees who once lived in Iraq can be added to the many tragic stories of the US invasion and occupation of that country.
There are Palestinian refugees all over the world, and every one of them is being denied their right to return to their homes and villages from which they were expelled. This is a right that cannot be canceled and a right that doesn’t have a statute of limitations. And while Palestinians continue to demand their right of return, other rights — to safety, to freedom of movement, to work and shelter and food — are violated as a matter of routine. The names of Palestinian refugee camps have become references to massacres and crimes committed against the Palestinian people: Sabra and Shatila (Lebanon), Jenin (West Bank), Rafah (Gaza) and today we add Al-Tanaf, Al-Hol, Al-Walid and Al-Ruweished.
Palestinians came to Iraq in several waves, each time fleeing a war. The first group is originally from villages around Haifa and Yaffa. They resisted the initial Israeli attacks on their villages, but were later forced to flee to Jenin where the Iraqi army was present. The women and children were evacuated to Iraq and all adult men were incorporated into a special unit in the Iraqi army, the Karmel Brigade. When the Iraqi Army left Palestine in 1948, these villagers (about 4000 in all) retreated with it. The next wave of Palestinians arrived in Iraq after the 1967 War and a third group arrived in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War when Palestinian refugees were forced to leave Kuwait.
Unlike Palestinian refugees in other parts of the world, those who lived under the Baathist regime did not fall under the jurisdiction of UNRWA and were not registered there. Palestinians in Iraq were issued special travel documents, had the right to work and were given full access to health, education and other government services. They were also provided with government-owned housing or subsidized rent in privately-owned houses. This was a source of resentment for Iraq’s poor, mostly Shia’ population, who believed that Palestinians were getting preferential treatment over Iraqis. Palestinians were not given citizenship, however, nor were they allowed to own assets such as cars, houses, or land. The precariousness of their situation was revealed starkly after the US invasion, and their preferential treatment, much of which was more apparent than real, made them targets for reprisals.
After the invasion in 2003, hundreds of Palestinian families in Iraq were evicted from their homes by landlords who had been forced to grant subsidized housing to them. They then had to go through a humiliating process of renewing their residence permits. These refugees were born in Iraq, lived their entire lives in the country yet had to apply for residency regularly with no guarantee of receiving it. A lack of valid residency documents in today’s Iraq puts one at risk of arrest at checkpoints.
As the political situation deteriorated, Palestinians were harassed and threatened by armed militias who saw them as remnants of the Baathist regime. As the insurgency grew, there was a media campaign to connect Palestinians to the bombings. They were an easy target for a US occupation and a client regime looking for some ‘foreign’ element to blame.
Palestinian refugees that fled Iraq report arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture. Sometimes they would be picked up by uniformed Iraqi secret service, other times people in civilian clothing would just knock down their doors and kidnap them. Those kidnapped would be found dead, thrown away on the streets after being tortured with electric drills, many times their limbs amputated. Those not murdered were held for ransom, forcing their families to sell all they owned to get them out. Armed men hand-delivered death threats to several Palestinians in Baghdad, setting off widespread panic among the Palestinian population.
Hoping to find safety in neighboring countries many families attempted to leave Iraq, only to find the borders to Jordan and Syria closed to them. Jordan initially admitted 386 Palestinian refugees with Jordanian family connections in 2003. Since then the Jordanian government has refused entry to other Palestinians from Iraq, and called on other nations in the region to offer them refuge stating that Jordan can not deal with the burden. To add insult to injury, the UNHCR has successfully managed to resettle some non-Palestinian refugees fleeing from Iraq to Jordan since 2003. Syria initially admitted 305 Palestinian refugees, but then placed them in Al-Hol refugee camp on the border. Since then, they too have closed down their borders to Palestinians crossing from Iraq. Once again, Palestinians see how Arab regimes offer nothing more than the rhetoric of Arab summits. When it comes to protecting Palestinians these regimes consistently abdicate responsibility.
Palestinians fleeing Iraq have been stranded in several refugee camps. Al-Hol Refugee Camp located on the Syrian side of the border was originally set up by UNHCR in 1991 to host Iraqi refugees fleeing Iraq after the suppression of the uprisings in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The majority of Palestinian refugees in Al-Hol came in May of 2006. These refugees have no legal status, no freedom of movement or freedom to work - essentially they are prisoners in the camp.
Palestinian refugees seeking asylum in Syria since it closed its borders to them, have ended up in Al-Tanaf and Al-Walid refugee camps located in no-man’s land on the border. There are 356 Palestinian refugees stranded in Al-Tanaf since May 2006. This camp is about 260 kilometers away from the nearest populated area. Conditions are deplorable, with inadequate medical and sanitation facilities. Al-Walid Refugee Camp is located on the Iraqi side of the border with Syria at the al-Walid border crossing. It was established on December 16, 2006, it now has a total of 340 residents. It is located in a remote area not far from al-Tanaf camp.
Jordan has its own refugee camp for Palestinians fleeing from Iraq. Al-Ruweished Refugee Camp is located on the Jordanian side of the border with Iraq. Jordan has essentially transformed it into a prison camp; refugees there are not allowed to leave and no one is permitted to visit without state issued permits. Currently, there are 148 Palestinians stranded there. Some have resided in the camp for the past three years. The children have had no access to education for that whole period. They regularly receive rotten food and are forced to consume it because there is no other source. The tents are highly flammable. One child has already died — when a tent caught on fire last year, a three-year old girl did not get out fast enough and died there.
Arrival in Canada
On November 1st, 2006, Canada granted asylum to 54 residents of Al-Ruweished camp. The families were only accepted after being scanned for health and political affiliation. The most vulnerable elderly residents were not admitted. The US, responsible for their displacement, has not offered to take any. No Arab states have offered to help either. The Palestinian Authority issued a statement saying they are happy to accept them, but the PA does not control its own borders and does not have the power to take these refugees in to another occupied territory.
When the families arrived in Canada they were sent to disparate corners of the vast country with no regard for their condition. Their hope to stay together for mutual support was not respected. Those individuals that ‘made it’ feel the responsibility to their families back in Iraq and in the camps, but cannot do anything to bring them to safety. The families currently in Canada are completely traumatized. After two months of being in Canada a father of six is still sleeping by the door of his house because the children are too afraid to go to sleep, afraid of attackers in the night.
Another 25 individuals from Al-Ruweished camp have been accepted to come to Canada under private, “group of five” sponsorship. This means that a group of five individuals are taking personal responsibility for them. Sponsors have to establish stability and income. This process of sponsorship does not entitle the refugees to any welfare services, as the sponsoring individuals need to cover the full expenses of the families for the first 12 months. For their first year in Canada, those refugees will not be able to access any of the services offered to the other 54 that were sponsored by the government. This is the privatization of the ‘Palestinian refugee problem’.
But as a Palestinian woman from Al-Ruweished camp said recently at a meeting in Toronto “this is the continuation of 1948 — in Al-Ruweished we lived very harsh conditions, we were humiliated daily, but everyone knows how steadfast we Palestinians are - we made it, we need to work to get the others out.”