Iranian refugees flee Al Tash camp
Note: this story was lightly edited on July 10 following new information received from the field.
KALAR, Iraq, July 8 (UNHCR) - Things went from bad to worse for the Iranian refugees at the Al Tash camp outside Baghdad the day the government of Saddam Hussein fell in April.
The refugees of Kurdish descent remained dependent upon UN food handouts. There was little water and electricity in the ensuing months. And day and night gunfire and grenade blasts echoed through the camp.
"We feared for our lives," said Mansoor, a 35-year-old car painter who left Al Tash last week. He came to Kalar district, 140 km to the south of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, over the weekend to look for a house to rent and then plans to return to the camp to fetch his wife and two children.
Mansoor is one of the 405 Iranians from Al Tash who local authorities say arrived in Kalar over the past several days. They say a steady exodus of refugees from Al Tash has been taking place because of the deteriorating situation in the facility. Al Tash is caught in one of the more unstable areas in Iraq between the Coalition and well-armed Iraqi gunmen reportedly loyal to the old government.
Of the some 12,000 refugees living at Al Tash before the war, several thousand have already left, and those now arriving in Kalar said they expect the rest to pack their bags soon unless aid agencies are able to help them leave.
Some 1,200 refugees who left Al Tash in April remain blocked on the no man's land on the edge of the Iraqi frontier.
The area around Al Tash is currently a no-go zone for aid workers. When UN refugee agency staff visited the camp in late June, they were told that up to 50 Iranians were leaving the camp daily and moving northwards toward Sulaymaniyah.
A UNHCR team travelled to Kalar on Tuesday (July 8) to look into the situation of the arrivals from Al Tash and ask them what their plans were. The refugees appeared to be in good shape. They were staying in rented houses or with relatives. They said they could not return to Iran for various reasons - mainly political - and planned to remain in the meantime at Kalar, a town of about 100,000 in a region populated mainly by Iraqi Kurds.
"We have identified relocation sites for the Iranian refugees at Al Tash," says Iraj Imomberdiev, UNHCR's head of office in Sulaymaniyah. "We are prepared to receive them in these sites as soon as it is reasonably safe for us to transfer them."
UNHCR staffer Kamaran Ali said that before the Al Tash refugees began to arrive, the agency was caring for some 3,500 long-time Iranian refugees in Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, providing food ration cards, medical aid, funds to subsidise their rent, and cash assistance for the most vulnerable.
For now, relief agency visits to Al Tash camp occur only rarely because of the continued security risks. A visit planned for today [July 8] by a team travelling from Baghdad was postponed due to insecurity in the area.
The camp houses Iranians who fled into Iraq during the war between Iraq and Iran from 1980 to 1988. The former government established Al Tash in the mid-1980s to gather all the Iranian ethnic Kurds in the country in one place.
The refugees in Al Tash were recognised by the Baghdad government and UNHCR. Mansoor, who was forced to flee with his family after the Islamic theocracy took over his country, was one of them.
Because the Iranian Kurds were treated well by the old regime, they had been the object of resentment among the Arabs and subjected to violent attacks and robbery after the collapse of the previous government.
"It was getting worse by the day, so I just decided to pack my family along with 30 other people into a pickup truck and left," said Jalal Wali, who left Iran in 1985 and never returned. "We were threatened all the time by the Iraqis. We had to go."
Mansoor said that before the war, he sold perfume and toiletries from house to house, getting his merchandise on credit. He earned well, but since the end of the war, he has not ventured out of the camp because the Iranians have been attacked and robbed by Iraqi Arabs.
Some of those who fled Al Tash have reportedly slipped into Iran. The arrivals in Kalar feared venturing onto the other side of the border, which is littered with land mines from the war. The frontier also is heavily militarized.
The refugees say they have received recent reports of two returnees killed, but these reports could not be confirmed.
For the moment, their biggest concern is getting settled and finding jobs. "We need help from God, but we also have to find jobs," said Mansoor.