GENEVA -– A total of 244 Palestinians, including more than 100 women and children, stranded at the Iraq-Jordan border for the past two months were allowed into Syria on Tuesday.
The group consists of 181 Palestinians who left the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in March fleeing death threats, intimidation and kidnapping. They were subsequently joined by additional families escaping the city.
On April 22, the Syrian Government announced that it would welcome the stranded group into Syria, under the auspices of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which takes care of Palestinian refugees in the Near East. Arrangements for the transfer took two weeks given the security situation in Iraq and other formalities.
Early Tuesday morning, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) led a convoy of nine buses carrying 250 Palestinians, along with trucks hauling tents, water and personal belongings, from Trebil on the Iraqi side of the border with Jordon, north to the frontier with Syria.
One incident was reported shortly before the convoy approached the border when about 20 men, four of them armed, approached the buses. No gunshots were fired, but two bus windows were reportedly broken. The convoy reached the border area safely.
Around 3 p.m., the convoy entered Syria through the Tanef border crossing in north eastern Syria, minus six passengers were refused entry because they had just arrived the day before. The convoy then headed to the UNHCR-run El Hol refugee camp in al-Hasakah Province, some 700 km northeast of Damascus, where the group will be temporarily housed and taken care of by UNHCR. In the coming days, responsibility for the group will be transferred to UNRWA.
“We are extremely grateful to the Syrian government for this significant humanitarian gesture,” said Ekber Menemencioglu, UNHCR’s Geneva-based regional director. “We have been very concerned at the plight of these people. It is a relief that the Syrian authorities have permitted them access into the country.”
A family of six who had only joined the group on Monday afternoon was not authorised to cross the border. Similarly, 40 other Palestinians – mostly men – who had been encamped on the Iraq-Syria border for the past few days, were refused entry. UNHCR is still discussing their possible access with the Syrian authorities. In the meantime, UNHCR Syria staff provided tents, water and food in case the remaining 46 have to stay at the border.
The refugee agency has expressed repeated concerns over the past several months about the security situation of Palestinians in Iraq. Life has become a little more tolerable for the Palestinians in Baghdad following a fatwa, or religious ruling, issued by Grand Ayatollah Al-Said Al-Sistani on April 30 declaring that Palestinian refugees in the country should be protected and forbidding attacks on them.
There are an estimated 34,000 Palestinians in Iraq, of whom 23,000 have been registered by UNHCR in Baghdad. The Palestinian refugees came to Iraq in three main waves – in 1948, in 1967 and in 1991 – and were provided with protection and assistance by the former regime. They enjoyed a relatively high standard of treatment that some segments of the Iraqi population considered unfair. As a result, the Palestinians have in the past few years faced evictions, threats and harassment.