Iraq: Finding a Future for the Iraqi Palestinians

By Melanie Teff
I watched President Obama’s Cairo speech about US relations with the Muslim world while in the “no man’s land” between the Syrian and Iraqi border-posts. Seven hundred and eighty Iraqi Palestinian refugees are currently forced to stay in this inhospitable stretch of desert known as Al-Tanf camp. They are confined to this small area – in effect living in a prison camp.

Al-Tanf camp is one of the most desolate refugee camps in the world. “We are scared of the snakes and scorpions here. After all, we have invaded their territory by moving into this desert,” one woman refugee in the camp told us. To hear President Obama, we had to keep increasing the volume of the TV when trucks roared past, since the camp is situated dangerously close to a major road where vehicles speed past. Recently a 70-ton truck veered off the road into the camp school and knocked down two tents.

The people living in the camp are Iraqi Palestinians who had to flee Iraq when they were targeted during the sectarian violence that broke out after the U.S. invasion. Syria would not allow entry to those who fled, leaving them stuck in the no-man’s land between the two border posts.

Refugees International last visited the camp in November 2008 and reported on the conditions and the need to resettle the camp’s residents in another country. The good news is that almost all of the people who were then living in Al-Tanf have now been resettled to other countries, mostly in Europe. But this has not resulted in the closure of the camp yet, since more people have arrived. Some Iraqi Palestinians did manage to get into Syria illegally, but eventually had to make their way to Al-Tanf, as they could not survive in this clandestine way any longer. Others were found and arrested by the Syrian authorities, often for working without legal permission, and deported to the camp. So the camp has filled up again.

One woman told us her story. She was married to a lawyer who was known for his human rights work in Iraq. He received death threats because of his work, but he refused to give up his defense of the legal rights of Iraqi Palestinians. In June 2007 he was murdered and his body was mutilated. After his killing she and her children received death threats. They fled to Syria using fake passports because they knew that they would be refused entry if they admitted that they were Iraqi Palestinians. In Syria life was very hard for the family, as they had to live illegally and could not work. All of her children were college students in Iraq, but they could not continue to study in Syria. After two years in Damascus, she became scared for the future of her children, so she decided to head to the border and they ended up in Al-Tanf camp.

Along with all the other refugees in Al-Tanf, this family sits waiting to hear its fate, hoping that one country or another will take them in. We asked the group if they were receiving any skills training in the camp. One man said, “I want to learn a language, but I don’t know where I’m going so I don’t know which one to study.”

In President Obama’s speech he talked about the desire to reach out to the Muslim world and to start a new relationship. He tackled many issues that are very hard to resolve. Al-Tanf camp presents an opportunity to resolve at least one problem created by the aftermath of the Iraq war with relative ease.

The Iraqi Palestinian population is fairly small – only a few thousand. So far the U.S. has not taken in any of the refugees from Al-Tanf. To its credit, it has agreed to take in many of the Palestinian Iraqis staying in Al-Waleed camp, another of the three similar border camps. But the US can do more.

President Obama’s expressed desire to turn the page and start a new chapter in relations with the Muslim world can be advanced by resolving the situations of people trapped in camps like Al-Tanf. The U.S. can show its commitment by offering permanent refuge to many of the people stuck in these border camps and encouraging other countries to do the same.