Of the approximately 34,000 Palestinians believed to be living in Iraq before the Iraq war, only some 10,000-15,000 remain in country or in border camps, stuck in legal limbo.1 Unprotected by the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Multi-National Force (MNF); turned away for resettlement by neighboring countries; and falling through legal cracks in international refugee law – these stateless Palestinians have been failed and forgotten.
Palestinian Refugees in Iraq: History and Scope
Palestinian refugees came to Iraq in several waves. The first group of about 5,000 came from Haifa and Jaffa in northern Israel in 1948 when the Arab-Israeli conflict caused large-scale displacement throughout the region, while the second wave from the Occupied Territories arrived after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This first group in 1948 also consisted of Palestinians whose villages were compulsorily drafted by invading Iraqi army, and were allowed to resettle in Iraq. A third group arrived soon after the Gulf War in 1991 when many Palestinian refugees were forced to leave the Gulf, particularly Kuwait.2
Before the Iraq War in 2003, these 34,000 refugees enjoyed a relatively high status of social, cultural, and economic rights. Despite the fact that Iraq has never ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Saddam Hussein’s government extended them various privileges and a wide access to services. They were issued easily renewable five-year residence permits and special travel documents – as well as having full access to social services like education and health.3 Most all Palestinians lived in state-owned apartments, or in privately owned apartments where rent was subsidized by the Iraqi government. They were excused from military service, and Palestinian students were occasionally awarded generous scholarships to attend universities.4 Iraqi law No 202 passed by the Iraqi Revolution Leadership Council in 2001 called for the equality between Palestinians living in Iraq and Iraqi citizens with respect to all rights with the exception of the right to acquire Iraqi citizenship or passports.5
However, the Iraqi government never formally recognized these Palestinians as refugees. Instead they were protected by the Iraqi authorities based on agreements and resolutions of the League of Arab States, in particular the 1965 Protocol for the Treatment of Palestinians in Arab States – the Casablanca Protocol.6 The League of Arab States (LAS) Council created this protocol in a time when Palestine and Israel were affected by consistent conflict with each other, rousing the LAS to create a plan for assisting Palestinians who fled Palestine in the midst of Israeli brutality and war. The Protocol had several tenants:
Whilst retaining their Palestinian nationality, Palestinians currently residing in the land of ...... have the right of employment on par with its citizens.
Palestinians residing at the moment in ...... in accordance with the dictates of their interests, have the right to leave and return to this state.
Palestinians residing in other Arab states have the right to enter the land of ...... and to depart from it, in accordance with their interests. Their right of entry only gives them the right to stay for the permitted period and for the purpose they entered for, so long as the authorities do not agree to the contrary.
Palestinians who are at the moment in ......, as well as those who were residing and left to the Diaspora, are given, upon request, valid travel documents. The concerned authorities must, wherever they be, issue these documents or renew them without delay.
Bearers of these travel documents residing in LAS states receive the same treatment as all other LAS state citizens, regarding visa, and residency applications.7
The Republic of Iraq, as a major signee of the Casablanca Protocol, essentially held up all these principles in regards to its treatment of Palestinians refugees during most of Hussein’s rule. However, these Palestinian refugees began to suffer during the period of UN sanctions on Iraq from 1990-2003. Hussein’s Revolution Command Council decided that Palestinians were no longer allowed to invest in companies or in any kind of entrepreneurial businesses. Marriage between Iraqis and Palestinians was restricted, and Palestinians were no longer allowed to live near international borders nor work in security sensitive areas. The UN sanctions also trapped Palestinians in Iraq because the sanctions had stopped air travel to and from Iraq, and because Iraq’s neighbors did not allow Palestinians to enter their countries.8 It would only get worse.
2003 Iraq War
With the American invasion of Iraq, and the fall of the former regime in April of 2003, Palestinians were left particularly vulnerable due to their uncertain legal status. Resentment that had been building up for decades over the Palestinians’ special treatment by the Ba’athist regime led many segments of the Iraqi population to lash out against them. They were stereotyped as supporters of Saddam Hussein and as primary candidates for the insurgency.9 Palestinian families were evicted from their homes by landlords who were resentful for having been forced by the former regime to house subsidized Palestinian tenants at rates lower than normal. Palestinians were randomly arrested, forcibly evicted, detained, kidnapped, tortured, beaten, and killed by the Iraqi and multinational security forces – and occasionally US occupation troops – on suspicion that they may have supported Sunni insurgent groups.10 Many Iraqi Shi’a resented the privileged treatment of Palestinians during Hussein’s rule and so the Mahdi Army and Badr Organization (the military wings of the two largest Shi’a political groups) consistently committed the abovementioned human rights abuses against Palestinians refugees in the years following.11
Whereas in the past Palestinians had very little trouble getting residency status, the Ministry of Interior started to require Palestinian refugees to obtain only short-term residency permits – which in a sense treated them more like non-resident foreigners instead of residents of refugee status. It became extremely difficult to obtain and renew the permits, now requiring all family members to come to the Ministry of Interior offices.12 The process of renewal would normally take days or even weeks, and the new permits were only valid for one or two months. Many Palestinians began to report violence and abuse – and even confiscation of their documents – when reporting for residency renewal.
The situation only got worse after the bombing of the Shi’a shrine in Samarra on 22nd of February 2006 (for which no group has yet claimed responsibility).13 The attack sparked rife sectarian violence in Iraq between the two different Muslim groups, which led to a civilian death count in the thousands. Hatred for Palestinians increased until eventually many attempted to flee to Jordan in March of 2006. When Jordan refused them entry, they were stranded at the border for two months until Syria agreed to take in the 305 people – including more and a hundred women and children.14 That April, while these Palestinians were waiting at the Iraq-Jordan border, the highest Shi’a spiritual leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, issued a fatwa that forbid all attacks on Palestinians and called on Iraqi authorities to protect them.15 Unfortunately, the fatwa had little effect, and violence against Palestinians continued, although maybe to a slightly lesser degree.
“These Palestinians are refugees twice over. Israel denies them their right to return to their homeland but Iraq has become a country where they are targeted for violence.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, Director, Human Rights Watch, Middle East and North Africa16
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a UN program mandated to protect and support refugees, either on its own or at the request of a particular government. It was established in January of 1951 by the UN General Assembly resolution 319 (IV).17 The creation of the UNHCR represented an endeavor by the international community during the 20th century to provide assistance to refugees. The UNHCR was initially given a temporary three-year mandate with the primary goal of helping resettle 1.2 million European refugees left homeless by the Second World War.18 However, given the increase of the refugee crisis, the mandate was extended every five years until 2004 when the temporal limitation was done away with by the General Assembly. The UNHCR’s three principle solutions are as follows:
Voluntary repatriation to and reintegration in their homeland in safety and dignity
Integration in their countries of asylum
Resettlement in third countries19
Palestinians who fall under UNHCR’s mandate include Palestinians who are “Palestinian refugee,” which is by their definition; those who were displaced from the part of Palestine which became Israel who have been unable to return there; Palestinians who are “displaced persons” – those who have been unable to return to the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967; and a third group who are neither “Palestinian refugees” nor “displaced persons” by definition but who, due to a legitimate fear of being persecuted, are outside the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) since 1967 and are unable to averse to return there.20
The UN General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) established the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) on 8 December 1949 following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.21 Its aim was to provide direct relief and works programs for Palestinian refugees, and similar to UNHCR, started with a temporary mandate that was continuously renewed, most recently extending it until 30 June 2017. Those Palestine refugees who fall under UNRWA’s mandate are those “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”22 The descendents of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration with UNRWA.23
UNHCR/UNRWA Protection Gap
One of the biggest issues with Palestinian refugees seeking refuge in Iraq is the crack in international protection mandates within which they fall. As addressed above, UNHCR works within the confines of the 1951 Refugee Convention – it is the key legal framework of the agency and forms the basis of UNHCR’s work.24 The Convention, ratified by 145 states, defines the term “refugee” and outlines their rights, as well as the legal obligations of those states to protect them.25 In contrast to earlier international apparatuses to assist refugees of which applied to specific groups of refugees, the 1951 Convention promoted a single definition of the term “refugee” in Article 1.26 The Republic of Iraq is not one of the 145 states to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, demanding no legal obligations from Iraq in regards to Palestinian refugees.
Worth noting is the fact that under article 1D of the 1951 Refugee Convention UNHCR’s mandate excludes refugees who are “at present receiving” protection or assistance from another UN agency – other agencies like UNRWA.27 That would be sufficient for the protection of Palestinian refugees in Iraq only if UNRWA worked in Iraq – however, it doesn’t. UNRWA only operates in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the OPT. UNRWA generally does not register refugees without government consent, even if they meet the criteria. On the UNRWA website it states that “UNRWA services are available to all those living in its areas of operations who meet this definition who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance.” So in this case, when the agency designed specifically for Palestinian refugees does not work in Iraq, UNHCR is mandated to serve those refugees who are not receiving “assistance from other UN agencies” under virtue of paragraph 2 of Article 1D of the 1951 Refugee Convention.28 UNHCR has been able to assist some Palestinian families who, for example, who have been evicted from their homes in Baghdad, however working with a state that has not ratified the Convention from which UNHCR operates makes work in Iraq difficult.
But despite being under UNHCR’s mandate, Palestinian refugees in Iraq do not seem to be able to fit into any of UNHCR’s three principle long-term solutions discussed above:
1) Voluntary repatriation to and reintegration in their homeland in safety and dignity is near impossible as Israel consistently denies Palestinians the right to return to Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The State of Israel has previously accused UNRWA of “perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem” by allowing Palestinian refugees to carry their refugee status to their future offspring.29 If Israel had accepted the right of return that was given to Palestinian refugees in the UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948)30, then repatriation would be a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in Iraq.
2) Integration into their countries of asylum, in this case of Iraq has not proved to be a viable solution after 2003 as they have been subjected to various human rights violations such as murder, torture, kidnappings, beatings, lack of access to travel documents, lack of access to jobs, and much more. Widespread sectarian violence has targeted Palestine refugees in Iraq since 2003, and even more so since the bombing of the Shi’a holy shrine in 2006. Amnesty International catalogued a number of specific instances of kidnapping, torture, and murder in a 2007 report titled Iraq: Human Rights Abuses Against Palestinian Refugees. The report notes that “scores of Palestinian refugees in Iraq have been killed since the US-led invasion in 2003...most were abducted by armed groups and their bodies found a few days later in a morgue or dumped in a street, often mutilated or with clear marks of torture.”31 It’s no surprise then that in an UNHCR report, it noted that the current situation in Iraq is such that “effective protection in the country is generally unavailable.”32 UNHCR has on a number of occasions called on the Iraqi authorities to provide legal protection and increased security for Palestinians in Iraq.33Although their security situation has gotten better in recent years, most of the refugees still feel fearful and mistrustful of returning to their former communities in Iraq. Integration into Iraq since the fall of Hussein’s reign has proven to be an unviable solution to the refugee situation.
3) Resettlement into third countries, or their attempt to resettle into third countries, has left many Palestinian refugees in Iraq stuck in border camps along the Jordanian and Syrian borders. Neighboring countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Syria refuse (with a few exceptions) to admit them. In 2003, when attacks against Palestinians became rife, many attempted to cross into Jordan. Jordan initially blocked the border for Iraqi Palestinians, only later allowing a few hundred into a barren and isolated al-Ruwaishid refugee camp about eighty-five kilometers inside Jordan from the Iraqi border.34 Al-Ruwashid camp was so horrendous that many returned to Iraq to brave the dangerous conditions rather than remain in the camp. In spring of 2006 after violence against Palestinians escalated after the bombing, over 200 Palestinians were stuck on the Iraqi side of the Jordanian border – and when Jordan refused to let them into Jordan, Syria allowed these Palestinians to cross into Syria.35 They allowed these 200 into Syria after a request from the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister, but again closed its borders to Palestinian refugees immediately afterwards. Despite Syria’s history of providing shelter and services for Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, the Syrian government has for the most part refused entry to Palestinians coming from Iraq since 2003.36 Palestinians from Iraq have found themselves living in harsh conditions in Syrian border camps such as al-Tanf and al-Hol camp.
The reality of the situation of Palestinian refugees in Iraq seems hopeless. They can no longer return to their homeland, because the Israeli state has not only invaded and taken over their country in the last seventy years, but they have refused Palestinians their right to return to a land that was once their home. The land in which those who fled took refuge has turned not only their backs on them since the Iraq War, but have also abused and mistreated them. Surrounding Arab countries have refused them the opportunity for a third home. In addition, the international community including the UNHCR and UNRWA, have allowed this group of Palestinian refugees to be forgotten, to slip through the cracks in refugee law, to give up hope for a viable solution to their vulnerable situation.
Regardless of the fact that the Republic of Iraq is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, they must ensure protection for all Palestinians in the country, especially those who are at risk of abuses by armed groups or other religious sects. To the Syrian and Jordanian governments: they must allow Palestinian refugees who wish to leave Iraq to enter their country, without fear of being stuck in a squalid border camp. Historically, both countries have been sympathetic to Palestinian refugees, and this past attitude must be applied to this specific group of particularly vulnerable Palestinian refugees. In alignment with international law, they are obligated to allow entry to those seeking protection from persecution. The legal status of Palestinian refugees in Iraq must be clarified. The state of Israel has refused to accept returning Palestinians, while the Republic of Iraq has made the process of issuing and renewing residency and travel documents for them. Their right to freedom of movement must be guaranteed by one of these states. The Arab League must also assume responsibility for these refugees – to call upon member states to help host this group by virtue of the Casablanca Protocol, and to urge Iraq to provide a safe and respectable environment for the Palestinian refugees to live. The Arab League did assist in 2008 by signing a tripartite agreement with UNHCR and the Government of Sudan to relocate refugees (on a voluntary basis) to Khartoum.37 However, under this agreement, Palestinian refugees relocated to Sudan would be given residency permits but not citizenship or a passport, and “since Palestinians will not enjoy security of residence, they may again be subjected to expulsion and dispossession.”38
In addition, other Arab States, especially to those who are signatories of the Casablanca Protocol, should actively work with UNHCR and UNRWA in resettling Palestinian refugees in communities that are willing to host these refugees in a dignified manner. The European Union and the international community must collectively commit to a solution for these refugees. The United States of America must recognize their involvement in the downfall of these Palestinians in Iraq, not only in their invasion of the country but also in the violence against refugees committed by American troops against Palestinians. A UNHCR report notes that “given the lack of required collective commitment from the international community, all UNHCR, UNAMI and UNRWA’s attempts to improve the protection of Palestinians in Iraq…have, so far, yielded no significant results.” It is time for this group to stop being forgotten by the international community.
The UNHCR and UNRWA must coordinate and better organize their assistance of this particular group of Palestinian refugees from/coming from Iraq. These refugees have tended to fall into the gap between the two agencies’ mandates, and this has been detrimental to their safety and wellbeing. For example, Syria and Jordan are countries that fall within UNRWA’s area of operations, and as discussed above, Palestinians registered by UNRWA would fall outside of UNHCR’s competence (paragraph 1 of Article 1D, Refugee Convention). Despite falling under UNRWA’s mandate in the refugee camps on the borders, these Palestinians in these camps are not registered nor assisted by UNRWA, and therefore fall under UNHCR’s mandate (which they did while inside Iraq). UNHCR and UNRWA must be urged to reinforce their coordination in order to register and aid the Palestinian refugees inside both Iraq and in border camps until they are able to return to their original homeland.
Most importantly, the state of Israel must be called upon to adhere by international law, allowing the return of these Palestinians. It is necessary to recognize that Israel is solely responsible for creating and perpetrating the Palestinian refugee problem by denying their right to return. However, given the precarious situation in Gaza and the OPT, any return must be strictly voluntary. Given Israel’s unwillingness to aid in this process and lack of a solution to the general Palestinian refugee issue, the Palestinian National Authority must prioritize these refugees. Working with allied Arab states, the PNA must exercise its responsibility to find real and practical solutions for Palestinian refugees in Iraq.
Palestinian refugees in on the borders of Iraq are a particularly vulnerable group of people. Their extended stays in refugee camps and border areas and their dependency on humanitarian aid is not a legitimate nor long-term solution. Their citizenship, their homes, and their livelihoods have been stripped away from them. Their family members have been targeted or even killed. They have slipped through the cracks of international agency mandates and lack basic protection as refugees. All of these different actors must work together to ensure that Iraqi Palestinian refugees are not subjected to refoulement (the forcible return of refugees to a country where they may be subjected to persecution) and that they be treated with dignity and respect. On June 11th of this year, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called for the dismantling of UNRWA, announcing after a meeting with US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, that “It is time the UNRWA be dismantled and merged with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.”39 Unlike UNRWA, UNHCR does not insist on repatriation, but rather advocates for local integration into host countries and resettlement as well. Netanyahu wants to dismantle UNRWA because the agency allows Palestinian refugees to transmit their refugee status from one generation to the next – and this is what solidifies the right of return. This is what ensures their dreams of returning to their homeland. UNHCR and UNRWA must work to keep this hope alive and well.
“The twice-displaced Palestinian refugees are one of the worst-off groups in a country full of desperate people…They have no country to go to, no valid travel documents, no protectors inside of Iraq, and hardly anyone prepared to support them outside either…It is to everyone’s dishonor that these human beings are still rotting [in border camps] and – worst of all – in Baghdad where one or more is being murdered virtually every day.”40
* Brennan Baylis currently works and resides in South Africa as an Assistant Project Manager for a local NGO. She received a Master of Arts in African Studies from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 2015, focusing on African politics and East African conflict. Her academic and past professional experience focuses on refugees, particularly from Africa’s Great Lakes Region and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. She recently went as a journalist to northern Uganda with the United Nations to assess the South Sudanese refugee situation.
1 UNHCR. Update of UNHCR Aide-Memoire of 2006: Protection Considerations for Palestinian refugees in Iraq. 2012, July.
2 Alfaro M, Wengert G. Can Palestinian refugees in Iraq find protection? Forced Migration Review. No 26 (19-21).
3 Amnesty International. Iraq: human rights abuses against Palestinian refugees. 2007, October.
4 Human Rights Watch. Nowhere to Flee: The Perilous Situation of Palestinians in Iraq. 2006, 9 September.
5 Government of the Republic of Iraq. Ministerial Resolution 202. 24 September; Vol 3897 (592). Available at: http://www.legislations.gov.iq/LoadLawBook.aspx?SP=REF&SC=130120013724516&Y ear=2001&PageNum=1.
6 UNHCR. Protecting Palestinians in Iraq and Seeking Humanitarian Solutions for Those Who Fled the Country. Geneva. 2006, December; (Aide-Memoire).
7 League of Arab States. Protocol for the Treatment of Palestinians in Arab States (“Casablanca Protocol”). 1965, 11 September. Available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/460a2b252.html.
8 Pilger J. Squeezed to death. The Guardian. 2000, 4 March.
9 Alfaro M, Wengert G. Can Palestinian refugees in Iraq find protection? Forced Migration Review. No 26 (19-21).
10 Campbell E. Palestinian Refugees from Iraq in Critical Need of Protection. Middle East Institute. 2008, 2 July.
A’idoun Group. Palestinian Refugees in Iraq: Missing Protection. Workshop; 2007, 5 March.
11 Amnesty International. Iraq: human rights abuses against Palestinian refugees. 2007, October.
12 Human Rights Watch. Nowhere to Flee: The Perilous Situation of Palestinians in Iraq. 2006, 9 September.
13 Amnesty International. Iraq: human rights abuses against Palestinian refugees. 2007, October.
15 Alfaro M, Wengert G. Can Palestinian refugees in Iraq find protection? Forced Migration Review. No 26 (19-21).
16 Human Rights Watch. Syria Takes Welcome Action on Iraqi Palestinians: Other Governments Should Also Admit Refugees. New York. 2006, 13 May. Available at: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/05/12/syria13372.htm.
17 UNHCR. Protecting Palestinians in Iraq and Seeking Humanitarian Solutions for Those Who Fled the Country. Geneva. 2006, December; (Aide-Memoire).
18 UNHCR. History of UNHCR [Internet]. Available from: http://www.unhcr.org/uk/history-of-unhcr.html.
19 UNHCR. What We Do: Protection [Internet]. Available from: http://www.unhcr.org/uk/protection.html.
20 UNHCR. Protecting Palestinians in Iraq and Seeking Humanitarian Solutions for Those Who Fled the Country. Geneva. 2006, December; (Aide-Memoire).
21 United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. Who We Are [Internet]. Available at: https://www.unrwa.org/who-we-are.
22 UNRWA. Palestinian Refugees [Internet]. Available at: https://www.unrwa.org/palestine-refugees.
23 UNRWA. The United Nations and Palestinian Refugees. 2006, July. Available at: https://www.unrwa.org/userfiles/2010011791015.pdf.
24 UNHCR. History: The 1952 Refugee Convention. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/uk/1951-refugee-convention.html.
25 UNHCR. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees: 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Text of the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Resolution 2198 (XXI). Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/uk/3b66c2aa10.
26 Ibid, 3.
27 Asylum Access. Is the Palestinian exclusion eroding? UNHCE extends protection to Palestinians in Jordan and Syria, departing from decades-old practice. 2007, 1 August.
28 UNHCR. Protecting Palestinians in Iraq and Seeking Humanitarian Solutions for Those Who Fled the Country. Geneva. 2006, December; (Aide-Memoire).
29 Salem S. Why is Netanyahu trying to disband the UNRWA? Al Jazeera: 2017, 22 June. Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/06/saving-unrwa-means-saving-palestinian-refugees-170619101047716.html.
30 United Nations General Assembly. Resolution 194. Available at: http://content.ecf.org.il/files/M00011_UNGeneralAssemblyResolution194-EnglishText_0.pdf.
31 Amnesty International. Iraq: human rights abuses against Palestinian refugees. 2007, October.
32 UNHCR. Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Iraqi Asylum-Seekers. Geneva, 2007.
33 Amnesty International. Iraq: human rights abuses against Palestinian refugees. 2007, October.
34 Human Rights Watch. Nowhere to Flee: The Perilous Situation of Palestinians in Iraq. 2006, 9 September.
36 Sassoon J. The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle East. 2007; ed 1B, 75.
37 Campbell E. Palestinian Refugees from Iraq in Critical Need of Protection. Middle East Institute. 2008, 2 July.
39 Salem S. Why is Netanyahu trying to disband the UNRWA? Al Jazeera: 2017, 22 June. Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/06/saving-unrwa-means-saving-palestinian-refugees-170619101047716.html.
40 Colville, Rupert 2007. How the World has turned its Back on the Palestinian Refugees in Iraq. Refugees No. 146, Issue 2, 24.