UNHCR urges help from global community as Palestinians flee Baghdad
GENEVA, January 24 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Wednesday urged the international community to aid Palestinians living in Iraq after 90 men, women and children fled Baghdad earlier in the day.
The Palestinians were reportedly headed on two rented buses towards the Syrian border, where more than 500 Palestinians have been stranded for months. Their flight came a day after some 30 Palestinian men were taken from their apartments by unidentified uniformed men who later released them.
Seventeen Palestinian men from Baghdad's Hay El Nidal neighbourhood were forcibly taken from their homes early Tuesday morning and released seven hours later. Another 13 were reportedly detained in the Al Amin area near Baladiyat and released shortly thereafter.
What happened to the men during their abduction remains unclear. But the men and their families were clearly traumatised by the ordeal and afraid to provide any details. All Palestinian families living in a Hay El Nidal apartment building rented by UNHCR had abandoned their homes by Wednesday. Some fled to other parts of the city, while others joined the group headed toward Syria.
The abductions caused great panic among the Palestinian community. Some Palestinians told UNHCR they feared attack by militias at any time. Many other Palestinians told UNHCR that they wanted to leave as well, but couldn't because they lacked proper documents, or because they still have family members in Baghdad who cannot go.
"Of all the groups being targeted in Iraq, the Palestinians are the most vulnerable as they literally have nowhere else to flee, and in many cases have been denied travel documents," said Andrew Harper, the Geneva-based senior Iraq operations manager. "The international community must act now to help these people. A safe haven needs to be found immediately, outside Iraq."
"UNHCR is extremely concerned by the latest developments and has taken up the issue with the Iraqi authorities," the agency said in a statement released in Geneva on Wednesday afternoon.
Meantime, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), with UNHCR support, is preparing the delivery of relief items, including tents, blankets, mattresses, lanterns, kitchen sets, stoves and plastic sheets, to the Syria-Iraq border in preparation for new arrivals. Water, kerosene and food are already available.
Last April, Syria allowed a group of 287 Palestinians from Iraq into the country. Since then, entry into Syria has been denied to more than 500 other Palestinians who fled Baghdad because of increasing harassment and attacks, or after relatives had been killed. Despite assistance from UNHCR, ICRC and local NGOs, the Palestinians have been living in extremely difficult conditions at the border sites, with nowhere to go and too frightened to return to Baghdad.
There are still an estimated 15,000 Palestinians remaining in Iraq - less than half of the estimated figure in 2003. UNHCR has repeatedly called for international support but with few results.