End of long ordeal for Palestinian refugees as desert camp closes

UNHCR closes the Al Tanf camp between the borders of Syria and Iraqi and relocates the last of the Palestinian refugees who lived there for years.

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

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