End of long ordeal for Palestinian refugees as desert camp closes

News Stories, 1 February 2010

© UNHCR/B.Diab
Palestinian refugees head towards the buses that will take them to Syria after years in Al Tanf.

DAMASCUS, Syria, February 1 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency closed the Al Tanf refugee camp between the borders of Syria and Iraqi on Monday and relocated the last of the Palestinian refugees who had been stranded in the bleak no-man's land for nearly four years.

UNHCR, working in cooperation with the Syrian authorities, transferred the last 60 camp residents on Monday morning. They will be housed temporarily at another refugee camp, Al Hol, inside Syria.

"I am very happy that this is finally over," said Abu Mohanned, one of the relocated refugees. "We have been waiting for this for such a long time and yet we are anxious about what's next. We have suffered a lot and have been forced to leave with no document in hand after living 60 years in Iraq. We just want a place that welcomes us and recognizes us as human beings."

Al Tanf is a makeshift camp located on a narrow strip in no man's land between the Syrian and Iraqi borders. It was set up in May 2006 for Palestinian refugees fleeing persecution in Iraq as no country in the region would accept them.

Their stay was intended to be temporary but lasted nearly four years, during which the residents had to face harsh desert conditions: extreme temperatures, sandstorms, floods and several risks of fire with difficult access to medical services.

UNHCR and its partners mainly UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the Palestinian Red Crescent and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had provided assistance to the refugees to alleviate their suffering. Meanwhile, UNHCR has been actively seeking humanitarian solutions for these refugees by requesting states give them a chance to start a new life.

"Today we were able to close this camp and this is a very important step and achievement in responding on a humanitarian basis to the situation of people who were stranded there as a result of fleeing persecution. This is the result of joint efforts with the Syrian authorities and the resettlement countries," said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR's deputy representative in Syria.

"However, there are still hundreds of Palestinian refugees from Iraq who are in Al Hol camp in the north-eastern province of Hassake and they also need the same compassion and understanding," he said.

The last moments were filled with emotion and hopes for the future. Families gathered next to the camp's main entrance, taking a last look at the desert site where they had lived. They were relieved to be leaving, but tense about their uncertain future.

Out of the 1,300 Palestinian refugees who had lived at different times in the camp, more than 1,000 were relocated to third countries, including Belgium, Chile, Finland, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Although the living conditions in Syria's Al-Hol camp are slightly better, circumstances are not sustainable and a solution is still needed for more than 600 Palestinians from Iraq currently living there.

The exact number of Palestinian who fled Iraq is unknown. Al Tanf is one of three camps that received Palestinian refugees from Iraq. Currently, there are around 2,000 in Al Hol and in Al Waleed camp, which is on the Iraqi side of the border. UNHCR will continue to advocate for a dignified solution for all those Palestinian refugees stranded in camps in 2010.

By Dalia Al-Achi in Damascus, Syria

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Palestinians Refugees in Iraq

Since the overthrow in 2003 of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, Palestinian refugees in Baghdad have increasingly become the targets of arrest, kidnapping, threats and murder, prompting thousands to flee the capital.

There are still an estimated 15,000 Palestinians in Iraq – compared to more than double that number in 2003. They live in constant fear, many without proper documentation. For those who try to leave, the trip to Iraq's border with Syria and Jordan is increasingly dangerous. Hundreds are stuck at the Iraq-Syrian border, too scared to go back and unable to cross the frontier. Those who do manage to leave Iraq, often do so illegally.

International support is urgently needed to find a temporary humanitarian solution for the Palestinians. UNHCR has repeatedly appealed to the international community and countries in the region to offer refuge to the Palestinians. The refugee agency has also approached resettlement countries, but only Canada and Syria have responded positively. Syria has since closed its borders to other desperate Palestinians.

UNHCR also advocates for better protection of the Palestinian community inside Iraq.

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UNHCR and its partners estimate that out of a total population of 26 million, some 1.9 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally and more than 2 million others have fled to nearby countries. While many people were displaced before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing escalating sectarian, ethnic and general violence. Since January 2006, UNHCR estimates that more than 800,000 Iraqis have been uprooted and that 40,000 to 50,000 continue to flee their homes every month. UNHCR anticipates there will be approximately 2.3 million internally displaced people within Iraq by the end of 2007. The refugee agency and its partners have provided emergency assistance, shelter and legal aid to displaced Iraqis where security has allowed.

In January 2007, UNHCR launched an initial appeal for US$60 million to fund its Iraq programme. Despite security issues for humanitarian workers inside the country, UNHCR and partners hope to continue helping up to 250,000 of the most vulnerable internally displaced Iraqis and their host communities

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Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

After Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in Iraq in 2003, groups of refugees who had lived in the country for many years tried to leave the chaos and lawlessness that soon ensued. Hundreds of people started fleeing to the border with Jordan, including Palestinians in Baghdad and Iranian Kurds from the Al Tash refugee camp in central Iraq.

Aside from a few Palestinians with family connections inside the neighbouring country, the refugees were refused entry and free movement in Jordan. Thousands were soon stranded in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan or at the desert camp of Ruweished, located 60 kilometres inside Jordan.

Since 2003, Palestinians, Iranian Kurds, Iranians, Sudanese and Somalis have been living there and suffering the scorching heat and freezing winters of the Jordanian desert. UNHCR and its partners have provided housing and assistance and tried to find solutions – the agency has helped resettle more than 1,000 people in third countries. At the beginning of 2007, a total of 119 people – mostly Palestinians – remained in Ruweished camp without any immediate solution in sight.

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