Palestinian refugees arrive at Romania centre en route to resettlement

A group of 59 Palestinian refugees arrive at a special transit centre in Romania en route to a new life overseas after being evacuated from a desert camp in Iraq.

A Normal Playground: Some of the Palestinians enjoy a game of football at the centre.   © UNHCR/F.Chiu

TIMISOARA, Romania, April 17 (UNHCR) - A group of 59 Palestinian refugees have arrived at a special transit centre in Romania en route to a new life overseas after being evacuated from a desert camp in Iraq.

The refugees arrived at Timisoara International Airport early Thursday morning and were then transferred to the pioneering Evacuation Transit Centre. The Romanian government, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) created the facility to provide a temporary haven for refugees facing acute danger and in need of immediate evacuation.

The group, comprising mainly women and children, will remain in the centre until their applications for resettlement in a third country have been processed. This will take no more than a few months.

They had all been living under extremely tough conditions in Al Waleed camp, located close to Iraq's border with Syria, after fleeing from persecution and human rights abuses in Baghdad in recent years.

The tented settlement is home to some 1,500 refugees who live with the danger of snakes, rats, scorpions, sandstorms, flooding, fires and extremes of heat and cold. Seventeen people have died in Al Waleed from various ailments since 2007.

UNHCR spoke to refugees who were happy to be somewhere where they had far more freedom of movement than at Al Waleed and where they could easily receive medical care. "We are so happy that for the first time in three years our children can play on a normal playground," said one of the Palestinians.

UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller attended the formal opening of the centre last month, but it has been accepting refugees since last November, when a group of Eritreans arrived. Feller said the centre was becoming a key protection tool for UNHCR and it set a great example to other countries.

The Evacuation Transit Centre can accommodate up to 200 refugees. The Palestinians will be joining several dozen Sudanese from the troubled Darfur region. They arrived from Iraq, where they had been living in another desert camp after fleeing abuse, blackmail, eviction and assault by militias following the 2003 downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime.

"Again, the Centre has proved its value," said Machiel Salomons, UNHCR's representative in Romania, who was in Timisoara. "For the fourth time, refugees in desperate situations have been evacuated to the centre, awaiting a new life in a resettlement country."

Salomons said donors were showing a lot of interest and he added that high-level delegations from several countries were scheduled to visit the centre in the coming weeks.

By Florentina Chiu in Timisoara and Claudia Liute in Bucharest, Romania