This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at the press briefing, on 22 December 2006, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
More Palestinians have arrived at the Iraq-Syria border after fleeing Baghdad to escape increasing violence, harassment and targeted killings. The latest group, 41 in all, has been stranded on the Iraqi side of the border with Syria since last Saturday. Iraqi border authorities initially refused to allow them to leave Iraq, citing a lack of proper documentation. Some members of the group do not have any travel documents, while others are holding expired ones – all as a result of suspension until further notice by the Iraqi authorities of renewals or issuance of residence permits.
In addition to this Catch-22 situation, the Palestinians have also been informed 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.
So we now have 41 traumatised Palestinians who have spent the past week 250 metres from the Iraqi checkpoint. They are being helped by a local tribal leader who has given them accommodation, food and water. Iraqi border officials have also provided some food and water and the ICRC is supplying tents, blankets, stoves and jerrycans.
UNHCR has been in contact with the respective authorities, but so far we have been unable to get any solution for the 41 Palestinians. According to Iraqi officials, a recent agreement between Iraq and Syria calls for tight control on the movement of people between the two countries. As a result, exit and entry permits can reportedly only be granted if authorities in both capitals agree. Both border authorities, UNHCR was told, are not in a position to make an exception and allow the Palestinians in, not even into no-man’s land.
There are still an estimated 15,000 Palestinians remaining in Iraq – out of some 34,000 in 2003. They are living in a climate of constant fear in Baghdad, with no easy way out of the country. The trip to the border is increasingly dangerous, they can’t get proper documents, and hundreds who have tried to flee are stuck at the Syrian border or in an isolated camp 60 km inside Jordan. Those who have managed to leave Iraq often did so illegally with the help of smugglers or fake documents.
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. 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.