In the latest of a long series of expressions of alarm over the fate of Palestinian refugees in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the United Nations refugee agency today voiced deep concern over a raid by Iraqi security forces this week in Baghdad, which left at least one Palestinian dead and nine others reportedly still in detention.
“The violence reportedly broke out when the Palestinians tried to resist the raid,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. “They said they were frightened following months of being targeted by various groups. Several have been kidnapped, arrested and killed. They have often expressed concern about the lack of protection by the Iraqi security forces.”
Over the past year UNHCR has repeatedly called on the Iraqi authorities and the United States-led multinational forces to protect the Palestinians, who fled to Iraq after the creation of Israel in 1948. Some received preferential treatment under Saddam Hussein and have become targets for attack since his overthrow in 2003. Nearly 20,000 of them have already fled but an estimated 15,000 still remain in the country, mostly in Baghdad.
Mr. Redmond repeated that call today and urgently appealed to countries in the region and outside to offer temporary relocation for Palestinians from Iraq, noting that at least 186 of them had been confirmed murdered in Baghdad between April 2004 and January 2007.
“UNHCR believes the number may be significantly higher. Their enclaves in Baghdad have been the target of many militia attacks. Hundreds of Palestinian families have been evicted from their homes with nowhere to go, prevented from seeking refuge in neighbouring countries,” he said.
“Recently, UNHCR has received reports that the families of several detained Palestinians have been forced to pay thousands of US dollars to some members of the Iraqi security forces, allegedly for protection from torture and mutilation of their family members while in detention. Higher sums have reportedly been demanded to ensure their release.”
In the latest incident, 51 Palestinians were reportedly detained initially, but released later. The raid prompted at least 41 more to flee and join 850 others who have been stranded at the Iraq-Syria border since last May. More are expected to be on their way. Police forces and multinational forces said the raid took place as part of the Baghdad security plan.
The dead man was a guard at one of the Baghdad mosques and reportedly suffered at least one gunshot to the head. UNHCR and other organizations have also received allegations of physical abuse and possibly torture carried out in detention, an allegation denied by the Iraqi authorities. One ex-detainee reported he was beaten on his back and suffered a broken hand. He believed that others had been subjected to worse treatment.
The Palestinians who arrived at the border claimed that their houses had been raided by the special forces, their furniture thrown out of their homes and that they were told they had two days to leave. Others claimed they had been detained and maltreated before being released.
“UNHCR is also very much concerned about the safety of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] working with the Palestinians,” Mr. Redmond said, noting that a NGO staff member dealing with the Palestinian community was abducted in front of his son by unknown men on Tuesday and found dead the next day.