Story of Chile’s Palestinian Refugee Community, Past and Present

By Douglas Smith

From the outset, Chile is probably one of the last countries one would consider when trying to understand the effects of the Nakba and the depth of the ongoing Palestinian refugee crisis. Geopolitically, it could not be any farther away from the conflict and the displacement imposed on Palestinian refugees. However, recent events, as well as a long history of the world’s largest Palestinian community outside the Middle East, tell a different story.

In the Spring of 2008, 117 Palestinian refugees arrived in Chile, fleeing the horrors of the US invasion in Iraq, where they lived as refugees, having been expelled by Israeli forces during the 1948 Nakba. After the completion of their two-year resettlement program, the question of Chile’s significance in the Palestinian refugee community worldwide, their struggle for the right to return and for fair treatment before its implementation, is ever more relevant and present.

Al-Tanf Refugee Camp: Endless Displacement

With frequent sandstorms, sub-zero temperatures by night, scorching heat by day, constant threat from scorpions and nearby freight traffic, it was no surprise that Al-Tanf refugee camp made it to the “top five worst situated refugee camps in the world,” according to Refugees International. (1) However, it was not poor planning that lead to the conditions of this camp, but rather the ongoing policies of foreign intervention in the Middle East and the refusal to allow certain refugees, displaced as a result of this violence, the freedom to cross international borders to get to safety. Many of these refugees are stateless Palestinians who were expelled from their homes in 1948 by Zionist militias. Around 5,000 of them from Haifa and its surrounding villages fled to Baghdad and now find themselves once again having to start a new life, in new countries, even farther from the place they identify as home.

After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, sectarian violence soared in the instability of the newly installed Iraqi government. In this climate, Palestinian refugees in Iraq became targets of sectarian violence as they were, often erroneously, considered sympathizers of Saddam Hussein. They soon found themselves in a situation, like many other communities in Iraq at that time, in which their neighbourhood was being shelled, their family members and friends kidnapped, tortured and killed. Much of the torture was carried out by government authorities.
Under Hussein’s regime, Palestinians living in Iraq were often used as political capital in the Iraqi regime’s discourse on wider Middle East politics, as well as internal unrest. Essentially, soon after Hussein came to power, he voiced public support for Palestinian resistance and granted Palestinians living in Iraq nearly the same rights as Iraqi citizens. But their acceptance into Iraqi society only fueled resentment, especially amongst the Shi’a majority who, like many other marginalized ethnic and religious groups, were often the target of brutal government repression.
However, in spite of the support and recognition that Palestinians had received, the travel documents issued to Palestinians by the Hussein regime during that period were never recognized by any other state, including the new Iraqi government. So, when they tried to flee to neighboring countries, along with so many other Iraqis, they were turned down at both the Jordanian and Syrian borders. And thus refugee camps such as Al Tanf, where the 117 Palestinians now resettled in Chile were living, were spontaneously established by the refugees in the “no man’s land” between Iraq and Syria, in which over 1300 of the refugees ended up languishing for years until its closure in February 2010.
In essence, although the community was mostly comprised of refugees from the 1948 Nakba, due to its establishment, smaller numbers of Palestinians fleeing the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, and the 1991 expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait, meaning that some families had experienced forced displacement for the third or fourth time in less than 60 years.

Local and International Solidarity

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which maintained the isolated camp by trucking in all its supplies of water and food, set out to try to find host countries for the Palestinian refugees ex-Iraq in Al Tanf. It was at that point that Palestine solidarity activist and documentary filmmaker, Adam Shapiro, got involved and started to communicate with people in potential host countries to help facilitate their resettlement. One of those countries was Chile, where there was more support than initially expected.

In Chile, a country which had suffered waves of displacement, after thousands of its citizens were exiled during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, which took power in a western-backed military coup in 1973, the UNHCR found genuine sympathy and understanding among the then recently elected socialist government of President Michel Bachelet. “A lot of people in the Bachelet government [including the President] had also experienced exile and torture under the Pinochet regime,” said Shapiro, having spoken to people in the Chilean government. (2) One prominent example was leftist Senator, Alejandro Navarro, who had a track record of fighting for systematically oppressed people, such as the indigenous Mapuches in Chile.

Finally, after months of organizational meetings, 117 Palestinians from the Tanf refugee camp landed in Santiago, Chile – the first half in April and the second in May 2008 –  to a series of  huge, welcoming celebrations all throughout the center of the country, marking Chile’s very first state sponsored resettlement program.

In an interview with Yasna Mussa, journalist with the Federaci

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out