NEW YORK — Jordan should immediately reopen its border to Palestinian refugees fleeing violence in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said today. The international community should assist Jordan by offering to resettle these Iraqi Palestinian refugees in third countries acceptable to them.
On April 4, a group of 35 Iraqi Palestinians arrived at the border, fleing from Baghdad, adding to the 94 Iraqi Palestinians already stranded on the Iraqi side of the border. They have fled lethal violence and threats to their lives in Baghdad, where they have lived for decades. The refugees told Human Rights Watch that they fled after seeing scores of their compatriots killed in Baghdad in recent months. Unlike Iraqi nationals, these Palestinians cannot enter Jordan on tourist visas.
“Jordan is slamming the door in the face of a small, but desperate group of people, who have seen their relatives murdered in Baghdad,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. “Jordan should not treat Iraqi Palestinians fleeing persecution more harshly than other Iraqis fleeing violence, who have generally been allowed to enter Jordan.”
Jordan closed its border to all traffic after the Iraqi Palestinians crossed into the no man’s land between the Iraqi and Jordanian border posts on March 19 and attempted to reach Jordan. The Jordanian authorities insisted they would not reopen the border unless the Palestinian refugees returned to Iraq. The refugees then spent four days unassisted in no man’s land. After four days, armed Iraqi border forces reportedly forced the Palestinians to return to the Iraqi side of the border.
The Palestinians are not safe at their makeshift camp just inside the Iraqi border. They fear that Iraqi officials may force them to return at any time to Baghdad, where they have been targeted by armed groups because they are Palestinian. It is also difficult for humanitarian aid agencies to reach them at their present location, though they are receiving assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.
One of the Palestinian refugees at the border told Human Rights Watch that Iraqi border guards were generally treating them well, but said, “I pray for a fast solution to our situation. We feel unsafe and have no access to services such as medical care.”
The UNHCR already assists a small group of Palestinian refugees who fled Iraq in 2003 and are living in Jordan’s Ruwaishid camp, close to the border with Iraq. The camp, which is located in a remote inhospitable area, cannot be the permanent home for these refugees.
The Palestinians currently fleeing Baghdad said they headed for Jordan because the Ruwaishid camp was their only hope of escape to temporary safety. They said that Iraq’s other neighboring countries would probably not accept them. But now even Ruwaishid is closed to the latest wave of Palestinians seeking protection. Jordan already hosts hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, and says that it is unable to cope with more.
“It is unfair to expect Jordan to shoulder the refugee burden alone,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “The international community should assist Jordan and resettle these Palestinians in third countries acceptable to the refugees.”
Some Palestinian refugees originally fled to Iraq in 1948, escaping from Gaza and towns in today’s Israel, and most of those currently seeking refuge in Jordan have lived all of their lives in Iraq. Mohammad Abu-Baker, a Palestinian Authority spokesperson, told the United Nations’ IRIN news service that the authority was ready to accept Palestinian refugees from Baghdad.
The UNHCR has successfully managed to resettle some non-Palestinian refugees fleeing from Iraq to Jordan since 2003. But regional states and the international community have been reluctant to accept even a small caseload of Palestinian refugees, citing security concerns.
“These refugees are being targeted for persecution inside Iraq because they are Palestinian,” said Whitson. “The international community should not deny them protection as well just for being Palestinian.”
Human Rights Watch documented the dire plight and uncertain legal situation of Iraqi Palestinians in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq conflict in its 2003 report, “Flight From Iraq.” Following the 2003 Iraq conflict, many Palestinians in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities came under direct attack, in part due to resentment of the fact that Saddam Hussein’s government provided many of them with homes it seized from Iraqi Shia.
The situation of Iraq’s Palestinian refugee population has deteriorated sharply over the past year. In late February, 10 Palestinians were reportedly murdered, and last week a Palestinian engineer in Baghdad’s Tubji district was also reportedly killed. Some of the refugees at the border with Jordan said they were relatives of those killed. On March 26, fliers distributed anonymously warned approximately 35 Palestinian families living in Baghdad’s Hurriya district to leave their houses by April 2, a Palestinian refugee told Human Rights Watch.
On March 19, a group of 88 Iraqi Palestinians, including 36 children, arrived at the Iraqi side of the border. Since then, one additional family of six has arrived. Iraqi border guards initially allowed them to cross to seek asylum in Jordan, after at first demanding proof of “clearance from the Iraqi Ministry of Interior” to exit Iraq, according to one of the refugees. Jordan immediately closed its borders to Iraqi Palestinians, leaving the refugees stranded in the no man’s land in between both borders for four days without access to humanitarian assistance.
Nasser Judeh, the Jordanian government spokesman, told Human Rights Watch that Jordan had demanded that Iraq take back the refugees, accusing the Iraqi authorities of “dumping” them on the Jordanian border.
Iraqi military officials subsequently moved the refugees out of the no man’s land under the threat of force, citing them as an obstacle to the free flow of commercial traffic across the border. They are currently living in 20 tents near the Iraqi border compound.