The Palestinian Refugees in Iraq.... Wartime Asylum

The Palestinian Refugees in Iraq.... Wartime Asylum

Alaa Barghouti*

The Iraqi Palestinians: A Historical Review

In the Nakba of 1948, Zionist settlers committed dozens of massacres against Palestinian civilians and pushed almost 800,000 Palestinians out of their homeland. Palestinians sought refuge in neighbouring states, 5000 of them went to Iraq for safety.  This followed the Royal orders to dissolve the Carmel Brigade, which comprised a majority of Iraqis at the time. Upon Royal orders, thousands of Palestinians accompanied the Brigade members returning to Iraq as “guests.”

These guests will be known later as “the Palestinians of Iraq” who lived in Al Baladiat districts, Al Houriya, Al Iwadya, Al Ameen, Al-Salam, New Baghdad, Zafariyah districts and other places without any clear legal cover, especially since the Relief and Employment Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East refused to provide assistance or protection on the pretext of their small number.

As a result of this tenuous situation - which persists to this day – Palestinian refugees in Iraq live in uncertainty, their lives most acutely affected by the changes in governance as they are the weakenst link, even during the reign of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Instead of finding a new home for themselves, Palestinian refugees in Iraq found homes, which could more accurately be described as mere graves.   

However, the situation took a melancholy turn shortly after the 2003 war, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and Iraq’s entry into a spiral of sectarian violence in which the Palestinians paid high prices firstly because of their Sunni Muslim background, and secondly because of rumours that they were talking about their own dealings in the reign of Saddam Hussein? The number of Palestine refugees in Iraq fell from over 34 thousand before the war to a few thousands after. 


Palestinians of Iraq the legal dimension

The legal status of “Iraqi Palestinians” has always been blurry. Since their arrival in Iraq, no international authority has assumed any responsibility to protect and support them. Iraq is not subject to the areas of operation of UNRWA which has refused to expand its areas of care to Iraq for various reasons, including the small number of refugees residing there.

Also the refugee relationship with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) remained unclear until approximately 2003.

While the Palestinian refugees in Iraq were obtaining residence permits in an acceptable and smooth manner by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior prior to the US invasion, they started living in a situation of unprecedented targeting by the new Iraqi government, which has placed many obstacles to the Palestinian refugees’ residency attainment.


The human rights violations suffered by Palestinians of Iraq:

The human rights organisations which were following the developments in Iraq have registered numerous cases of violations and abuses suffered by Palestinian refugees in Iraq shortly after the American invasion. Human Rights Watch for example, enumerated a series of violations in its legal report entitled “Inevitable-the dangerous situation of the Palestinians in Iraq”.

These violations against Palestinian refugees from Iraq, range from threats to eviction, murder and enforced disappearance of Palestine refugees at the hand of Interior Ministry of the new Government of Iraq. Moreover, sectarian militias also violated dozens of rights of Iraqi Palestinians.

Due to this disastrous situation, hundreds of Palestinian families were forced to flee to new camps put up at the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border known as the Ruwaished camp, Al Karama camp and Al Tarbel camp near the Jordanian-Iraqi border, as well as the TANF-al-Walid and Al-Hol refugee camp near the Iraqi-Syrian border.

These desert camps, established between 2003-2006, lacked the minimum necessities for suitable living conditions, but security threats forced these families to endure the flames of the desert. Nonetheless these camps have not been the safe havens, which refugees hoped they would be as sectarian militias have repeatedly attacked the camps.

During that period, UNHCR began its timid work with the Palestinians of Iraq, and held the first official census of Iraqi Palestinians in September 2003. However, according to many rights reports UNHCR has not provided sufficient protection to Palestinian refugees residing in Iraq or in camps.

The tragic situation of Iraq’s Palestinians has continued to worsen dramatically, reaching its peak in 2007, when activists started to report waves of emigration of Iraqi Palestinians from desert camps to outside Iraq. According to the statistical data from the Standing Committee for Refugees in Iraq, the number of Palestinian refugees at the end of 2009 dropped to only about 10,000.

After the war, the Interior Ministry of Iraq issued travel documents to Palestinian refugees in 2006, while their personal identification cards were not issued until 2009.

In the meantime, the Interior Ministry of Iraq continues to treat Palestinian refugees in Iraq in accordance with an unclear policy, as they deal with laws providing for residency in Iraq and sometimes they put sticks in the wheels and tighten the actions against them. In addition, some groups who are favoured by the Iraqi Government may even get involved in rights violations against Palestinian refugees in Iraq.


Some violations documented by legal actors:

A Palestinian family of five people was killed during their passage in Al Sadryia area in the central of Baghdad in October 2004. 

A refugee was kidnapped by Sh’ia militiamen and killed on 27/6/2006 June, and three members of his family were then killed while they were going to receive his body. 

Racist threats against Palestinian by the so-called “Al Iqab companies” as infidels, traitors and collaborators of the Kuffaar. 


Iraqi refugee victims

The number of sectarian violence victims, which targeted the Palestinian refugees in Iraq is estimated at about 300, according to the statistics of Palestinian militants, indicating that there is no official body or an international census of Palestinian victims, but according to unofficial figures, the number of Palestinian victims in Iraq after the year 2003 has reached 300 at least.


Overview of the desert camps, which were established between 2003-2006:

  • Ruwaished Camp:
  •  - Established in 1/5/2003, near the Iraqi-Jordanian border to host nearly 700 Iraqi refugees. The camp was closed in 2007 after a number of refugees were admitted to Jordan and the remainder resettled.

  • Al Karama Camp:
  • o Established in 2003 on the border area between Iraq and Jordan, refugees were allowed to enter Jordanian territory and join the Ruweished camp.

  • Al-Odeh camp:
  •  - Established in 2003 in Baghdad, to host hundreds of Palestinian families who were pushed out of their homes in certain districts of Baghdad. The campground was a sports stadium, which was closed after the UNHCR intervention in 2005.

  • Al-Holl camp:
  •  - Established near the Syrian-Iraqi border in 2005 by some 20 Palestinian refugees who fled towards Syria. It was closed after its residents were permitted entry into Syria in 2006.

  • Tarbel Camp:
  •  - Founded in 2006 near the Jordanian border, with approximately a population of 83 Iraqi refugees. The camps was closed after the Syrian authorities allowed the refugees to enter their territory.

  • Al-TANF camp:
  •  - Established in 2006 at the Syrian-Iraqi border inside Syrian territory, it was closed in 2010 after its residents were allowed to enter Syria.

  • Al-Walid Camp:
  •  - Established in 2006 in the Iraqi desert near the Syrian-Iraqi border. It hosted 1700-1900 refugees who were unable to enter Syria or Jordan.


    Neighbouring Countries’ Agreements with Iraqi Refugees:

    During the war, hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Iraq tried to flee from the border camps towards Syria and Jordan specifically. Jordan received the Palestinian refugees from Iraq in the Ruweished camp, and made 700 of them sign pledges to return to Iraq if conditions improved. Additionally almost 400 Palestinian refugees married to Jordanian women were allowed to enter Jordan with an acceptance from HM King Abdullah II of Jordan. The border was closed to hundreds of refugees, which later returned to

    Iraq. In March 2006, about 83 refugees were returned into the Iraqi border from Al-Trebil camp, which was later closed after the remaining residents were allowed to enter Syrian territory.

    In 2005, 19 refugees in Al Hull camp between the Syrian-Iraqi border were allowed by the Syrian authorities to enter their territory, as is the case with the hundred inhabitants of the Al-Tanf camp who, during the period 2006-2010, were allowed entry into Syria until the camp was closed.


    New Asylum and Resettlement

    UNHCR has worked to resettle Iraqi Palestinians in a number of countries around the world, including America, Canada, Europe, Latin America, Turkey and Australia.

    Generally, the refugees who have arrived in those areas have obtained legitimate residences in those countries, but their economical living conditions vary according to the country.

    For example, Iraqi Palestinian refugees in Europe have better freedom of movement, residence and employment than those in Latin America, particularly in terms of  support which is provided by those States to their refugees. Whereas those who have taken refuge in poor European countries such as Cyprus and Italy suffer from poor living conditions because of the difficult economic situation on the one hand and complex legal procedures on the other.

    The Palestinians of Iraq in Turkey are provided with very few aids from the UNHCR.

    Today thousands of refugees who have been displaced to Jordan and Syria are under UNHCR protection. They are also benefiting from “UNRWA “ services operating in Jordan and Syria without being registered in their records. The choices of these families are between staying in Syria or Jordan or waiting for a third country resettlement programme.


    Rights violations again: Italy October 2011:

    According to the International Network for Rights and Development  approximately 157 Iraqi Palestinian refugees, which were resettled into Italy, suffer from numerous systematic violations. In accordance with the Rights Network, as soon as the refugees arrived in Italy from the Al-TANF camp on the Iraqi Syrian border, they were transported to houses confiscated by Mafia men in Kalibra municipality, which was already under the control of the Mafia.

    According to the network, the refugees suffered many attacks, including “brutal assaults” by mafia men and often in front of the policemen who were complicit with them.

    The city municipality has also refused to pay any financial benefits to them, although it was charged a first EU payment of EURO5 million.

    The network also added that, scores of girls have been kidnapped during the first months and many documented cases of kidnapping and gang-rapes have been registered with the police. Children have also had their fair share of sexual harassment as shown in six documented cases, where there was no punishment for the perpetrators.

    In addition The Italian local police refused to allow a forensic physician to disclose the body of the refugee, Hassan Mohammed Ibrahim Nets (45 years old), who was found hanging from a tree with his eyes lost. According to the International Network, after the Palestinian refugees  had received serious threats of massacre, they preferred to mass escape from Italy and a 157 of them arrived in Sweden last May, where they were received by authorities and hosted at a hotel in the south of the country.


    Renewed suffering and new asylum due to the war in Syria 2011

    Once the Iraqi refugees who have sought refuge in Syria have been able to arrange their living and legalstatus somewhat ,they were overtaken by the war which began in 2011. The Iraqi Palestinian refugees in Syria were the targeted by both the Syrian government and the opposition. In the former’s case some militias favoured by the Syrian government attacked the Iraqi Palestinians on the pretext that they were close to some Palestinian factions that had sided with the Syrian opposition. In the latter’s case on the other hand  opposition factions attacked Iraqi Palestinian refugees on the pretext that they are close to somePalestinian factions loyal to the regime.

    Moreover, the presence of a large part of Iraqi Palestinians in the Palestinian camps in Syria that were not spared from the shelling and siege like the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, has pushed hundreds of them to re-migrate either toward Turkey or return to Iraq.



    Following up the Palestine refugees’ status in Iraq, their tragedy is still happening till today, as there remains a deterioration of the security status and sectarian conflict in Iraq. The writer urges for more concern by international organisations and more pressure to be placed on Iraqi governmental institutions to provide protection and to facilitate for the Iraqi Palestinians. The writer stresses on the need for more follow-up regarding the situation of Iraqi Palestinians in neighbouring hosting countries to ensure that they are not affected by crises and war situation such as those unfolding in Syria.

    However, this does not mean that the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Embassy in Baghdad are exempted from their responsibilities towards refugees in Iraq, especially in countries that do not offer any assistance for the resettled Iraqi Palestinian refugees via UNHCR.


    * Journalist and Palestinian researcher


    1  The Palestinian Refugees in Iraq Statistics published in the Book of Palestinians in Iraq by Muhammad Ezzeddin, Damascus, Dar Al Ghad, 2009

    2  Palestine Refugees in the Arab World Reality and Prospects, Al Jazeera Center for Studies, Qatar, 2013

    3  A press statement to the Iraqi Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Ahmed Haboubi in 1968

    4  Human Rights Watch report

    5  Statistics of the Standing Committee for Refugees published in the Book of Palestinians in Iraq by Muhammad Ezzeddin, Damascus, Dar Al Ghad, 2009.

    6  Palestine Refugees in the Arab World Reality and Prospects, Al Jazeera Center for Studies, and Palestinian Return Centre, London & Qatar, 2013.

    7  Ibid

    8  Human Rights Watch report

    9  "The international network for Rights and Development” An international organization registered in Switzerland and Norway with offices in more than forty countries in the world.

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