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Palestinian refugees stranded at Syrian border

22-12-2006 Feature

Nearly 350 Palestinians who have fled the violence in Iraq are stranded on the Syrian border, unable even to return to Baghdad. These refugees are now facing the rigours of winter with nowhere to turn. Irenée Herbet, an ICRC delegate posted in Damascus, reports.

" The rains at the end of Ramadan flooded everything, " said Abu Assil, head of the committee formed by the refugees. " We were wading around half-way up to our knees and some of the tents were swept away by the water and the wind. " The temperature sometimes fell to freezing, he went on, and there were violent storms. People were exhausted and would soon have nothing left to eat.

The camp was set up last April between the border posts along a road down which an endless succession of transport trucks rumble. The tents were supplied by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since then conditions have not improved much. Yes, a few makeshift toilets have been fashioned (and quickly grown unsanitary). And medical consultations have been given in the camp, and serious cases taken to Damascus. But the fact remains that the refugees are forced to live unprotected. They have lost everything, and nobody wants them.

" We refuse to settle here! " , exclaimed Abu Assil, pointing out that from the start the refugees themselves had requested only enough aid to meet their vital needs, for fear of becoming permanently stranded. " We ask only for a country of asylum. Do we have to wait for years like the people in the Ruweished camp in Jordan, who fled Iraq way back in 2003? " For the time being their lives are on hold in this sweep of desert extending as far as the eye can see.

 "No return"  

    

Everyone expected huge waves of refugees from Iraq when the war started in 2003. Now t hey are indeed arriving in neighbouring countries. Of these refugees the Palestinians are in the most precarious position. They were never granted Iraqi citizenship and their travel documents are often stamped " No return " . So they are forced to wait for a country to grant them the chance to settle and get on with their lives. But the nations in the region consider themselves to be already saturated. According to the United Nations relief and works agency for Palestine refugees, Syria has more than 430,000 refugees of Palestinian origin on its soil.

Working in conjunction with the Syrian authorities and the UNHCR, the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have taken stopgap action by moving the camp to a more appropriate site. They have supplied 90 tents and some 100 heating units. To ensure adequate hygiene and enough drinking water, they have installed four 5,000-litre water tanks, each with its own distribution taps and drainage system. In addition, picks and shovels were provided to help set up and maintain the new camp.

For its part, the UNHCR furnishes food and medical care. Further care comes from Palestinian charities in Damascus, which also provide material aid. Though grateful for this help, the refugees long for a true solution to their predicament. As Abu Assil puts it, " My mother just died in Amman. I didn't even have the right to go to her funeral. "