UNHCR sends aid to evicted Palestinian refugees in Baghdad
9 May 2003
The UN refugee agency expressed concern Friday for a growing number of Palestinian refugees who have been evicted from their homes in Baghdad, and announced it is sending a convoy of aid to to help cover their immediate needs. In another development, a UNHCR team in southern Iraq has discovered dozens of Iranian refugees who have also been ejected from their homes by local communities.
The three-truck convoy is transporting materials for up to 2,000 people, including 400 tents, 1,200 mattresses and 2,000 blankets as well as stoves, jerry cans and soap. The convoy crossed the Jordanian border on Friday morning, and was due to arrive in the Iraqi capital later in the day. The aid materials will be handed over to the Palestinian Red Crescent who will distribute them to the homeless Palestinians.
Reports from Baghdad suggest that around 1,000 Palestinian refugees have already been forced to leave their homes since the end of the war and are camping in disused buildings, as well on pieces of open land, in the Iraqi capital.
UNHCR fears that more of the 60-90,000 Palestinian refugees believed to be living in Iraq may lose their homes, as other landlords reclaim property they were forced to rent out for minuscule sums to the Ba'ath government on behalf of the refugees. Since the fall of the regime, even this money - sometimes as little as US$1 per month - has not been paid to the owners of the property.
Many of the Palestinian refugees living in Iraq have been there since 1948, or are the descendants of refugees who came in the wake of the first Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Others were displaced more recently, for example from Kuwait following the 1991 Gulf War. The great majority of the Palestinians in Iraq live in Baghdad, although there are also small communities located elsewhere in the country who may be facing similar problems.
Palestinians in Iraq come under UNHCR's mandate, unlike Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Territories or in the countries sharing a border with Israel, who fall under the mandate of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East). However, until the recent change of regime, UNHCR assistance to them was for the most part confined to legal assistance, including the provision of documents. Material assistance (including housing and food), medical care and education were provided for them by the state, under the provisions of Iraq's 1971 National Refugee Act.
Although this assistance was perhaps more basic than Iraqi government propaganda suggested, it may have led to resentment among Iraqi citizens who felt, rightly or wrongly, that the Palestinians were getting more government assistance than they were.
"We're concerned that what we're hearing about evictions may be the start of a backlash," said UNHCR's Chief of Mission for Iraq, Daniel Bellamy. "None of this is the Palestinians' fault, but if the perception is that they were beneficiaries of the former government, then they may suffer as a result. This is one reason why we want to get back in to Baghdad as soon as the security situation allows."
On Wednesday, a UNHCR team operating out of Basra, in southern Iraq, discovered several families of Iranian refugees living in a disused transit centre on the edge of the city. The refugees reported that they had been expelled from their homes in Dujaila - a refugee settlement near Al Kut, about half way between Basra and Baghdad. They said their property and crops had been confiscated. While the UNHCR team was still in the centre two more families arrived from Dujaila citing similar reasons. The team subsequently proceeded to the Iranian border where they discovered three more Iranian refugee families displaced from Dujaila, who were trying to get permission to repatriate to Iran.
Small numbers of UNHCR staff have recently returned to Basra in southern Iraq and Erbil in the north. However, there are currently no international UNHCR staff in Baghdad. The decision about how many UNHCR and other UN agency staff can return there, and when they can do so, will be made by the UN security agency, UNSECOORD, on the basis of ongoing security assessments in the capital.
Prior to the war, UNHCR was also directly assisting some 12,000 Iranian refugees - mostly Kurds - in Al Tash camp west of Baghdad, and more than 9,000 Turkish Kurds in Makhmour camp, south-east of Mosul.
UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concern about a group of around 1,000 of the Iranian refugees from Al Tash who have been stuck in no man's land at the Jordanian border for more than three weeks, after fleeing from the camp towards the end of the war.
Both Al Tash and Makhmour camps have since been visited by UNHCR local staff and staff from partner agencies and appear to be functioning reasonably well. However, UNHCR's Bellamy said the agency was still anxious to get more international staff back into the country to attend to the well-being of both camp communities as well as to deal with the new problems affecting the Palestinians. In addition, UNHCR wants to proceed with preparations for the reintegration of Iraqi refugees expected to return to their home country.