Resettlement to Iceland rescues Palestinians from border camp limbo

News Stories, 4 August 2008

© UNHCR/M.Sidky
Wedad and her thee children, inside their tent in Al Waleed Camp in May, will benefit from resettlement to Iceland.

AL WALEED, Iraq, Aug. 4 (UNHCR) More than two dozen vulnerable Palestinian refugees stranded for the last two years in a makeshift camp in the desert on the Iraq-Syria border are set to leave the camp in the coming weeks for Iceland.

"The group includes some of the most vulnerable women and children with urgent cases, for whom resettlement is the only option" says Daniel Endres, UNHCR's Representative in Iraq.

Iceland takes 25 to 30 refugees for resettlement every year and in recent years has focused on resettling single women and single mothers with their children.

Wedad, a 30-year-old widow is among the group of 29 refugees that will be leaving soon for Iceland. She arrived in Al Waleed camp a few months ago after her husband was killed while trying to save victims of a suicide bombing in Karada district in March.

A second bomb exploded while he was helping survivors of the first blast, killing him and injuring his four-year-old son. Wedad and her three children left Baghdad in hopes of going to a neighbouring county, but became stranded in the border camp.

"Life in the camp is harsh and very difficult for my children," said Wedad. "My son is especially suffering serious psychological problems after seeing his father killed in front of his eyes."

An estimated 2,300 Palestinians are living in desperate conditions in two refugee camps along the Iraq-Syria border, unable to cross the frontier into a country already straining to cope with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees.

Of the estimated 34,000 Palestinians who lived in Iraq in 2003, it is believed that some 10,000-15,000 remain in the country. Al Waleed camp is presently home to more than 1,400 refugees while Al Tanf camp, situated in the no-man's land between Iraq and Syria, has doubled in size since October 2007, with some 900 refugees living there. A group of 155 Palestinians from Al Tanf are about to leave to Sweden soon.

Temperatures in the summer soar to 50 degrees, while they dip below freezing in the winter. Hamid, a 32-year-old Palestinian, has lived in Al Waleed camp for more than two years. In early 2007 he broke his ribs during a severe storm when raging wind threw him violently against a door. Unable to get proper medical care, he resorted to painkillers and sedatives which, far from relieving his problems, have caused epileptic fits and comas.

"When I first came to the camp in March 2006, I felt that I had come to safety in this temporary refuge, but it has now been a long time and I am scared of what the future entails for us," said Hamid.

Without proper care, the health of many refugees has become increasingly dire. Palestinian health workers in Al Waleed who see patients every day have identified medical conditions ranging from diabetes and birth defects to kidney problems, cancer and serious trauma.

The nearest proper medical facility in Iraq is more than 400 kilometres away and patients have to be transported by taxi. Neighbouring countries such as Syria have restricted entry requirements, particularly for Palestinians, and it is extremely difficult to admit patients with urgent medical needs for treatment.

UNHCR has repeatedly called for international support for the Palestinians but with few results. Few Palestinians in the border camps have been accepted for resettlement or offered shelter in third countries; only some 300 Palestinians left to non-traditional resettlement country such as Brazil and Chile.

Some urgent medical cases were taken by few European countries, but this is a very small number of the total of the 2,300 Palestinians stranded in the desert. UNHCR continues its efforts advocating for alternative humane solutions in the hope that all of the Palestinians will be able to leave the harsh conditions of the camps. Their relocation would in no way jeopardize their right to return at any stage, if and when such a possibility arises.

"We hope that more countries will offer refuge for the most vulnerable Palestinians who need immediate assistance. UNHCR is exploring all options to find temporary and long term solutions for Palestinian refugees." added Endres.

By Maha Sidky in Al Waleed, Iraq