DAMASCUS (IRIN) – The start of 2009 offers little hope to the residents of Al Tanf, a refugee camp on the Syrian-Iraqi border housing over 700 Palestinians who had fled persecution in Iraq. No country has given any concrete pledge to take any of the refugees for resettlement in 2009, leaving them to battle the cold desert weather this winter with more despair than ever.
The refugees say that despite visits from foreign delegations, resettlements have been few and far between since the camp opened in May 2006.
Jamal, 53, said residents are giving up hope. Originally from Haifa, he moved to Baghdad following Israel’s taking over of the city. He said that he and his family fled to Syria in February 2007 after being targeted by militia groups. “We just want to be resettled,” he said. “I don’t mind where. I just want to live the rest of my days in peace.”
Resettlement is the pressing need for the people of Al Tanf. Stuck in tents in No Man’s Land between the border crossings, the refugees are legally unable to go forward into Syria and fear going back to Iraq where they face persecution from Kurd and Shia groups who accuse them of being too close to the Sunni-dominated insurgency or resent the privileges they received under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“It’s hard to say why resettlement is so slow,” said Kristian Boysen, project officer at UNRWA, the main UN agency dealing with Palestinian refugees. “Each country has an immigration quota and they choose who they think will fit into the country. There are a lot of crises in the world, such as [those in] Sudan and the Congo; that might be part of the explanation.”
The camp’s edge is very close to the main road used by heavy vehicles transporting goods between Syria and Iraq; two children have been killed on the road in the past two years.
Al Tanf’s environmental conditions are totally unsuited for people to live there, according to Sybella Wilkes, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). "In the summer strong winds and incredible heat make fire a constant hazard. In the autumn and winter, even light rain can destroy the camp. The dug latrines flood and the tents become filled with water as the passing trucks splash water into the camp. Then there are the rats, the snakes and the scorpions."
It is not just Al Tanf refugees who need resettlement. There are about 1,000 Palestinian-Iraqis in Al Waleed camp on the Iraqi side of the border. A further 300 live in Al Hol camp, further to the north on the Syrian side.
There were 306 successful resettlements from Al Tanf in 2008: 116 to Chile, 174 to Sweden and 16 to Switzerland. In addition, Iceland, Norway and Sweden took some refugees from Al Waleed and Al Hol. But for every family that leaves, another arrives – either fleeing from Iraq or having been unable to earn enough money to support themselves in Syria.
UNRWA, UNHCR, and other UN agencies provide everything from food and water to schooling, medical care and equipment for the tents. But neither the agencies nor the refugees see this is as a permanent solution. “Don’t give us a better tent, get us out of this hell,” one refugee said.
Holding onto Hope
Selwa, a mother of five, is especially worried for children and older members of Al Tanf. “The old people are too frail to survive another harsh winter,” she said. “The children are developing mental health problems. Do you know how it feels not to be able to fulfil your child’s basic needs?”
She said she did not understand why the international community was not taking notice of their plight. “We have suffered enough. We [Palestinians] have been rejected wherever we go. People don’t realise that we are educated and will fit in anywhere given the chance.”
Sudan offered to take 2,000 refugees but camp members rejected the offer. UNRWA and UNHCR say they believe many of the Al Tanf residents are suffering physically and psychologically from their experiences in Iraq and now in the camp. It is unlikely their needs would be met in Sudan.
Europe is the hope for most refugees who point out that each country need only take 10 families each in order to empty out the camps. Every visit by a foreign delegation raises the refugees’ hopes of resettlement. But without pledges by any countries, it remains just that – a hope.
(Originally published in IRIN News, Feb 5, 2009)