Afif Sarhan: Palestinians in Iraq in Crisis

By Afif Sarhan

Nearly 700 Palestinian residents of Baghdad have fled to the western al-Anbar province and are awaiting international assistance in makeshift camps along the Iraq-Syria border.

They are unable to leave Iraq since they lack recognized travel documents and funds. They now face shortages of food, water and medical supplies.

At the al-Waleed refugee camp in a rural and impoverished stretch of al-Anbar the most vulnerable are given the best accommodation – an abandoned and dilapidated school. This site lacks basic services – there is no rubbish collection, no sewerage, toilets, showers, fuel or electricity.

Transport to urban areas is difficult and employment is nearly non-existent.

Anita Raman, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) spokesperson, told Al "Al-Waleed is a remote and inhospitable location, and access by aid organizations is limited.

"Shelter is currently inadequate, with refugees sleeping on ground level through the desert night, where snakes and scorpions are common."

Numbers Dwindling

The population of Palestinians living and working in Iraq in 2003 was estimated at 34,000, but since the US-led invasion, the Palestinian community has been the target of sporadic attacks, kidnappings, rape and assassinations.

"Rocketing and mortaring of their homes, abductions, abuse, threatening, torture and killing have become routine. There are no comprehensive totals of fatalities since 2003, but UNHCR believes that several hundred Palestinians have been killed on the basis of community and media reports," Raman says.

UN aid agencies estimate about 19,000 have left the country while some of those who remain have fled to encampments housing Palestinians along Iraq’s borders.

In addition to the al-Waleed camp, several hundred Palestinians fled to Syria where they were granted entry and are currently housed in the town of el-Hol.

But, as the number of Palestinians increased, several hundred were allowed to exit Iraq but not enter Syria. They were left with no choice but to remain in the village of al-Tanf within the Iraqi-Syrian border buffer zone.

Death Threats

Abu Muhammad, 47, a refugee at al-Waleed, says life in Baghdad became dangerous after his family and other Palestinians were threatened and attacked.

Children and the elderly at most at risk from the poor conditions at the camp "In January 2007, they killed our son and left a note beside his body giving us one week to leave before our daughter had the same fate," he told Al

"We fled after two days without money or goods but we had to save our lives."

But the situation in the makeshift camps is beginning to deteriorate.

Dehydration Hazards

Families long since driven from their employment are using limited savings to buy essential items from one local shop, but inflation has left them with limited options.

"Our saved money is ending … sometimes we have to make only one meal a day to save supplies for our children," said Hanan Ahmed, 38, a mother of three.

The lack of food and clean water is particularly worrying to aid agencies as the summer months approach. Temperatures in the deserts of al-Anbar have been known to reach 55C, conditions which could mean death for the youngest and eldest of the Palestinian refugees.

Dr Faisal Rabiaa, a clinician from al-Qaim, who sometimes travels to the area to provide free humanitarian services to displaced Palestinian families, says the situation is critical and that without urgent medical assistance, many children could succumb to diarrhea.

"When I found a two-year-old child under severe chronic diarrhea and dehydration, I tried to help by transporting him with me to a nearby medical centre, but hours later the child died because of late medical assistance," he told Al

"They don’t have even medicines for simple diseases like headaches and diarrhea. The inaccessibility of the area has made it difficult for doctors who are working with local NGOs to access those vulnerable families and provide them with [adequate] health care."

Unclean Water

Aid agencies are also worried that the refugees have been resorting to unclean water.

Um Kareema, a 42-year-old mother says: "Sometimes you feel desperate and drink even water that was used to wash yourself to save your life."

UNHCR, through its local partners, is trying to provide water, food, and medical services and access to the Palestinians at al-Waleed, but local aid groups say much more is required.

Omar Subhi, spokesperson for the Association for Saving Palestinians in Iraq (ASPI), said: "Even with all efforts offered by UNHCR, it isn’t 20 per cent of all requirements."

With Iraq’s hot summer just a few weeks away, the UNHCR is pursuing and promoting resettlement options. However, no country has yet shown a willingness to accommodate this group from al-Waleed.

(Al Jazeera, April 24, 2007) 

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