BAGHDAD — They may be the world’s longest-suffering refugees, but the Palestinian families sitting in the sweltering heat of the dusty football field at Haifa Sports Club in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Sunday had no idea that it was World Refugee Day.
“I hope this occasion of World Refugee Day can serve as a bridge for us to help us go home,” Huda Naif Sahaa, 43, told IRIN. “I’ve never heard of this World Refugee Day, but I want to know more about it if it helps us.”
Some 35 families are still living in tents at the sports club. Already, 140 families have been relocated, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The refugee agency is assisting 450 Palestinian families in Baghdad by subsidising rents, providing medical care and other relief items.
In 2003, UNHCR registered some 23,000 Palestinians in Baghdad but the total number in the Iraqi capital is estimated to be around 30,000.
But those remaining at the club say conditions are unbearable in the stifling summer heat. “It’s like hell to live here,” Sameer Mohammed, 24, told IRIN as he stroked his little boy Ahmed’s head. “My wife has got typhoid, we think from the water, so she’s in the hospital now.”
Under former President Saddam Hussein, Palestinian refugees in Iraq received special housing privileges, paying cheap rent that landlords raised when the regime fell in April 2003. That forced many of the families to leave their previous homes. The former government only provided enough housing for about 12 percent of the estimated 35,000 Palestinians in Iraq anyway, according to statistics supplied by Anwar Sheikh, a refugee who acts as an administrator at Haifa camp.
The camp was set up almost a year ago in a sports complex previously used by the refugees when they lived in nearby apartment buildings before the rising rents forced them out.
“We are not even registered in Iraq, but we would like to go home,” Sheikh told IRIN. “Israel should allow refugees to come home.” Ask anyone living in the camp and they tell you the same thing.
Munder Amed Abdul Saif, also living at the sports club, told IRIN he still considered himself a refugee, even though he had spent his whole life in Iraq. “I must move to my family’s birthplace,” Saif said, smiling. “It is not acceptable to live here. We must be allowed to return.”
UNHCR started a registration programme for refugees to get a better sense of their profile to better plan assistance, but it has been a slow process due to a scaling down of operations following security concerns, Sheikh said. Under Saddam Hussein, the refugees received identity documents but not passports, he added.
“To date, more than 23,000 people have been registered but the documentation, which is done through UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, was not finished before security deteriorated,” spokeswoman for UNHCR’s Iraq operations, Astrid Van Genderen Stort, told IRIN from the Jordanian capital, Amman.
“If we have to stay outside our native country for another 50 years, we demand that all forces in the world, including the United Nations, recognise our humanitarian rights,” Sheikh said. “We suffer a lot. We’re just asking for the world to understand us.”
Refugees say government authorities are dealing with their case at a slow pace. “Our file is being moved to the Ministry of Migration and Displacement, so we met the minister to ask how he could help us,” Sheikh said. “He said he would take care of us, but nothing has happened.” Officials at the ministry said they are waiting for money to be dispatched to help subsidise rents.
Elsewhere in the region, 170 Palestinians who fled Iraq last year have now left a no man’s land site and the adjacent al-Ruweished refugee camp on the Jordanian border and returned to Baghdad. The refugees said they had given up hope of finding a new home in the Middle East and preferred to return to Baghdad. UNHCR is providing all the returnees with transport assistance and various relief items.
Meanwhile, although refugee returns are continuing to Iraq, the UN refugee agency is not encouraging them, but instead facilitating convoys, in cooperation with the Iraqi authorities, for those who wish to go home. In June more than 350 Iraqi refugees returned in two separate convoys from Khuzestan and Fars provinces in Iran to Basra Governorate in southern Iraq, bringing the total number of returnees to some 11,500 with most coming from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.
UNHCR is planning to provide further support for the reintegration of returning refugees and displaced Iraqis in the three northern governorates of Arbil, Ninewa and Dahuk, and for Turkish refugees at Mahmour camp, near Arbil, and Syrian refugees settled in Baghdad, a UNHCR statement said.
IRIN-Asia, Tel: +92-51-2211451, Fax: +92-51-2292918, Email: IrinAsia@irin.org.pk.
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