Mohammed Wesam Amer*
There are Palestinian refugees all over the world and their right to return has always been declined and refused by Israel and most world powers. This leads to many Palestinian refugees living in severe situations in many places in Arab and non-Arab countries. In specific, this article addresses and describes different situations of Palestinians in Iraq. It starts with statistics and numbers of Palestinian refugees in Iraq. It then tackles the historical background of Palestinians seeking refuge in Iraq, and the treatment of Palestinians during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime. This report deals mainly with information compiled from literature across many online sources on Palestinian refugees in Iraq.
There are some statistics on the number of Palestinians in Iraq. As such, we do not have an accurate number of Palestinian refugees registered in Iraq. This is because Palestinians came or immigrated to Iraq at different times as we can see in section (3).
The number of Palestinians in Iraq who were assisted by UNHCR (2017) is 9,250. Before the US-led invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Saddam regime, the number of Palestinian refugees was approximately 35,000 (Harper, 2008). This means that number of Palestinians in Iraq was higher in Saddam’s era than the number after the occupation of Iraq mainly by the US-led invasion. (Campbell, 2008) states that “several thousand more have dispersed throughout the world in search of protection and are concentrated in places like New Delhi, Cyprus, and Malaysia”. Human Rights Watch (2006) claims that “the security of the approximately 34,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq has drastically deteriorated since the fall of the Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003”.
The presence and immigration of Palestinians in Iraq can be divided into three successive waves after being uprooted by three different wars –1948, 1967 and 1991. The first wave dates back to 1948. The Iraqi army, which fought in Palestine during the 1948 war returned to Iraq with a group of Palestinians fleeing their homes. “Iraq, like Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, has played host to a significant Palestinian refugee population since the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war that caused large-scale displacement of Palestinians from Israel” (Human Rights Watch, 2006).
This group fled first to Jenin following attacks carried out on their villages. In Jenin, they met up with the Iraqi army that was stationed in the area at the time. Women and children were evacuated by the Iraqi army to Iraq in 1948. The men were incorporated into a special unit within the Iraqi army known as the “Carmel Brigades”. The brigade, having numbered 4000 at the time, entered Iraq in 1949 following the Iraqi army´s withdrawal from Jenin (Lifos, 2014: 5).
The second wave is back to the 1967 war with Israel and was considered the second largest wave of Palestinians seeking refuge in Iraq (Human Rights Watch, 2006). The third and final wave occurred in 1991 after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when those Palestinians living in Kuwait fled or were expelled because of Palestinian leadership’s support of Saddam Hussein, i.e. “when Yasser Arafat’s public support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait inflamed anti-Palestinian sentiments” (Human Rights Watch, 2006:8).
According to representatives at the Palestinian Embassy in Baghdad Palestinians residing in Iraq today are either refugees from 1948 or 1967. Palestinians who came from Kuwait following the Gulf War in 1991 have all left the country. The majority originated from Gaza and Lebanon (Lifos, 2014: 5).
Palestinians in Iraq are not protected according to the 1951 Geneva Convention because Iraq is not a signatory of this convention (see Crisp, 2005:34). Thus Palestinians have no official status as refugees by Iraqi authorities. Iraq has not given the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) any permission to work in its territories (Charles, 2012). Consequently, Palestinian refugees in Iraq fall under the responsibility of the UNHCR (2007).
The Iraqi government has given Palestinian refugees protection and assistance according to the Casablanca Protocol of the League of Arab League in 1965 (see Khaled al-Aza’r, 2004). This means that Palestinian refugees were never recognized officially as refugees by the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government granted them a five-year residency permit as well as travel documents. This recognition of Palestinian refugees has been treated differently as Iraqi governments changed, as we will see in the next sections.
The treatment of Palestinians in Iraq can be divided into two-time periods: before 1990 and after 1990. The first period refers to the time before 1990 and before the Iraqi invasion of Iraq in 1991. This refers mainly to the time before the UN sanctions on Iraq (1990-2003) (see Chatelard, 2004).
During that time, Palestinians were treated by and large equitably (Human Rights Watch, 2006) under Saddam Hussein’s regime. For example, Palestinians received full access to governmental services, e.g. healthcare and education and permission to work (World Health Organization, 2013). They were also provided with government-owned housing or subsidized rent in privately-owned houses” (Human Rights Watch, 2006). Also, the government issued special travel documents for Palestinian refugees. By utilising such documents, Palestinians in Iraq were able to travel within Iraq, but not outside the country.
The fact that certain segments of Iraqi society still regard Palestinians as supporters of the Saddam era further contributes to their vulnerability. The good treatment of Palestinians has not continued for a long time.
The second period refers to the time of UN sanctions on Iraq between 1990 and 2003. In that time, the Palestinians suffered a lot. For example, the Iraqi regime did not allow Palestinians to invest into any kind of entrepreneurial businesses in Iraq. There were asked to get certain permissions when getting married. They were also not allowed to work in sensitive security services. “The Palestinians were also trapped inside Iraq because of the UN sanctions did not allow air travel to and from Iraq and because Iraq’s neighbours did not allow the Palestinians to enter their countries” (Human Rights Watch, 2006).
Although Palestinians were issued travel documents, they were not granted an Iraqi citizenship as is the case in all Arab countries (see Lifos, 2014: 7). “Palestinians were permitted to work, attend educational institutions, and enjoyed freedom of movement; however, they could not own property or acquire citizenship” (Campbell, 2008).
The US invasion and occupation of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 has been reflected on Palestinians living in Iraq. “The precarious situation of Palestinians in Iraq was revealed starkly after the US invasion, and their preferential treatment, much of which was more apparent than real, made them targets for reprisals” (Zidah, Rafeef, 2007). Wengert and Alfaro (2006:1) claim that “in the aftermath of wars [in 2003], Palestinians, like the Iraqis among whom they live, have witnessed dramatic declines in their standards of living”. For example, Palestinians in Iraq were subject to discrimination, sectarian violence and ruthless killing by the Iraqi government and various militia groups (see Human Rights Watch, 2006).
As a result, Palestinians were subjected to harassment, targeted attacks, kidnappings as well as extra-judicial killings which were predominately carried out by Shi´a militias. Hundreds of Palestinian families were also forcibly evicted from government and privately owned housing by groups of armed militia as well as landlords who had received minimal rent from the government and who no longer felt obliged to grant subsidized housing. Palestinian neighborhoods such as al-Doura, al-Hurriyya and al-Baladiyyat in Baghdad were also bombarded and attacked (see iDMC, 2008).
“After the invasion in 2003, hundreds of Palestinian families in Iraq were evicted from their homes by landlords who had been forced to grant subsidized housing to them. They then had to go through a humiliating process of renewing their residence permits. These refugees were born in Iraq, lived their entire lives in the country yet had to apply for residency regularly with no guarantee of receiving it. A lack of valid residency documents in today’s Iraq puts one at risk of arrest at checkpoints” (Wengert and Alfaro, 2006).
Such treatment has affected the lives of Palestinians in Iraq and made some of them flee their homes and the country. They moved to and lived in camps in Jordan, Syria and/or other countries where it was possible to move to (see Lifos, 2014: 8). The next section sheds lights on some of the camps where Palestinians lived.
Palestinians moved to some camps in the neighbouring countries. “ They have no country to go to, no valid travel documents, no protectors inside Iraq, and hardly anyone prepared to support them outside either” (Campbell, 2008) They lived in a bunch of temporary camps inside the neighbouring countries or are stranded on the borders with Iraq.
Suleiman, Jaber (2007) highlights some of these camps that can be summarized in the following points:
This article articulated the number of Palestinian refugees in Iraq mainly before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It then exposes the treatment of Palestinians in Iraq during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime showing the different living situations of Palestinians, and demonstrating the reasons behind the difference in treatment following the US invasion in 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Although, the security situation for Palestinians in Iraq has improved since 2007 in general, “there are no indications that would suggest that the Palestinian population is facing any direct threats that would single them out from any other minority group” (Lifos, 2014: 15). This led Palestinians to feel marginalized by the escalating sectarian tension, which in turn affects their security and safety while living in Iraq.
* Dr. Amer is a Marie Curie fellow and post-doctoral researcher at Newcastle University. Dr. Amer has a PhD in Media and Communication from the University of Hamburg in 2015 under the title ‘War Reporting in the International Press: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Gaza War of 2008-2009’.