Palestinian refugees to Iceland and Sweden

Briefing Notes, 5 August 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 5 August 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

More than two dozen vulnerable Palestinian refugees stranded in the desert in Al Waleed refugee camp on the Iraq-Syria border for the last two years will be leaving the camp in the next few weeks for Iceland. Another group of 155 Palestinians stuck in no-man's land between Syria and Iraq in Al Tanf refugee camp have been accepted for resettlement in Sweden. UNHCR appreciates the support of both Iceland and Sweden in finding help for these very vulnerable people.

The two groups include some of the most vulnerable women and children with urgent medical needs requiring immediate attention. As you know, UNHCR has for the past two years been seeking urgent humanitarian help for this group even if temporary relocation elsewhere.

An estimated 2,300 Palestinians are living in desperate conditions in two refugee camps along the Syria-Iraq border, unable to return to Iraq or to cross the borders to neighbouring countries. Al Waleed camp is presently home to over 1,400 refugees while Al Tanf camp, situated within the no-man's land between Iraq and Syria, has doubled in size since October 2007, with close to 900 refugees living there.

The health situation of many of the refugees has become increasingly dire as proper medical care and viable alternatives are lacking. 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. In the past 14 months, 12 refugees have died in the camps. We have posted a story on the UNHCR website which puts a human face on the suffering of these people.

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; 223 Palestinians left to non-traditional resettlement countries such as Brazil and Chile. Some urgent medical cases were taken by a few European countries, but this is a very small number out of the 2,300 Palestinians stranded in the desert. Sudan has offered to accept some of the Iraq Palestinians from the camps and UNHCR and Palestinian representatives are finalizing an operations plan that will enable this to take place. UNHCR appreciates all of these responses and we hope that all of the Palestinians will be able to leave the harsh conditions of the camps sooner rather than later. Their relocation would in no way jeopardize their right to return at any stage, if and when such a possibility arises.

While UNRWA the United Nations Relief and Works Agency is mandated with taking care of Palestinian refugees in the Near East, UNHCR is responsible for the Palestinians who live or have lived in Iraq or outside the UNRWA area of responsibility.