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.

Palestinians Refugees in Iraq

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

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Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

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