DAMASCUS – Thirty nine Palestinian refugees from Iraq – stuck at al-Tanf refugee camp in no-man’s land on the Iraq-Syria border – have been resettled in Chile.
“Until last year it felt like the doors were closed for moving the Palestinian refugees. The desert conditions at al-Tanf are extremely inappropriate for the refugees to live in. Finally a window of opportunity opened with Chile,” said Laurens Jolles, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Syria.
The resettlement is the first of its kind since Palestinians fleeing violence in Iraq were first interned in tents at al-Tanf in May 2006. An earlier plan to resettle some of the Palestinians in Sudan was delayed after some of the refugees rejected the idea.
Since October 2007 al-Tanf has doubled in size from 351 to 733 Palestinian refugees, following the tightening of asylum restrictions in Syria, which already hosts an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees.
Al-Walid camp on the Iraq side of the border is home to about 1,560 Palestinian refugees. So far the UNHCR has resettled one family of eight with several sick children from the camp – to Norway in August last year. A third camp near the border, al-Hol in north-eastern Syria, houses some 300.
The 39 refugees who flew to Chile from Damascus on 5 April included 23 children. They have been resettled in La Calera, 130km north of Santiago, where local authorities are providing health care, education and Spanish classes. Chile has agreed to host 117 refugees in total and two more groups are expected to depart later this month to be resettled in San Felipe, north of Santiago and other neighbourhoods in the capital.
Despite the resettlement in Chile, over 2,000 Palestinian refugees continue to deal with the harsh reality of life in the desert at the al-Tanf and al-Walid camps. Conditions in al-Hol in Syria are significantly better as the refugees have much freer access to Syrian goods and services.
As well as the daily threat of bites and stings from rats, scorpions and snakes, the refugees in al-Tanf have lived for years without any clear future ahead of them.
“One of the worst things for the refugees is that they are in a permanent state of ‘waiting’. They are between borders and have no control over their lives. They are completely dependent on aid organisations and this is very disheartening,” said Astrid Haaland, Iraqi Palestine refugees team leader for the UN Palestinian relief agency, UNRWA.
Almost half the refugees in al-Tanf are under 18. Many have developed asthma as a result of the desert conditions and are suffering from fevers, diarrhoea and vomiting.
Although there are emergency doctors from the Palestine Red Crescent (PRC) permanently on call at al-Tanf, treatment at a hospital is a three-hour ride away in Damascus where only critical cases are taken.
Despite the hardships, Jolles said the refugees at al-Tanf are well cared for. They are not short of material, food or water supplies, he said, and the UNHCR together with UNRWA, the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF, the PRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) have set up programmes to help the refugees deal with the psychological trauma of their experiences in Iraq.
UNRWA set up a school in February 2007, hiring some of the qualified refugees as teachers and providing an education programme which currently teaches over 100 children.