Iraq + 2 more

Iraq: UNHCR warns of tragedies facing Palestinian refugees

BAGHDAD, 29 April 2007 (IRIN) - Hundreds of Palestinian refugees stranded in makeshift camps in no-man's land between the desert borders of Iraq and Syria must be moved to a safer place to avoid any human tragedies, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said last week.

The 25 April statement came a day after a fire swept through the al-Tanf refugee camp - which hosts 389 Palestinian refugees, mainly women and children - during the night and left 28 people injured and seven tents destroyed.

"This is the second time a fire has broken out in this camp. It is an example of how inappropriate and dangerous this place is for humans to live in and underlines the need to move these refugees to an appropriate and safe place," Laurens Jolles, UNHCR's representative in Syria, said.

"This was an accident waiting to happen," said Jolles. "In winter, the refugees endured flooding. Now, the heat is becoming unbearable and we can expect tragedy upon tragedy to follow if we do not find a solution for these people."

According to the refugee agency, the fire was apparently caused by a spark from an electric cable in a tent which ignited a diesel can and gas cylinder. The flames spread rapidly, fanned by strong winds. Border guards two miles away told UNHCR that they heard several loud explosions as gas cylinders and televisions exploded in the flames.

At least three refugees were severely burned and 25 others, mainly children, suffered from minor burns and smoke inhalation. Seven tents, personal documents and all the possessions of seven Palestinian families who have been stranded at the camp for the past 11 months were destroyed in the blaze.

"Within one minute the tent was a fireball. We had seconds to pull our families out of the surrounding tents, which are one metre apart," said a Palestinian refugee quoted in the UNHCR statement who lost everything in the fire.

"There was no time to take anything. Our children were sleeping. My neighbour has serious burns because he went into the burning flames looking for his child who had already run out of the tent. Everything is lost, including our hope in life," he added.

Dalil al-Qasous, the Palestinian charge d'affaires in Baghdad, told IRIN that the refugees at the camp are in desperate need of medical assistance and medicines, "especially for those who suffer asthma and the elderly with chronic diseases".

About 750 Palestinian refugees have been staging a sit-in at al-Waleed border camp since 12 April to draw international attention to what they say is their ongoing suffering and persecution in Iraq.

Another 437 Palestinian refugees are scattered in two other makeshift camps.

Thousands of Palestinian refugees fled to Iraq from the newly created Israel in 1948. Some of them enjoyed preferential treatment by the government of the deceased former president Saddam Hussein.

Since Saddam's overthrow in 2003, many of them have been frequently displaced as a result of being systematically targeted by Shia militia of al-Mahdi army and continuing raids by government security forces on their neighborhoods. There has subsequently been an increase in the number of Palestinian refugees heading towards Iraq's borders.

In its latest report on human rights in Iraq issued last week, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq said that at least 198 Palestinian refugees had been killed in the country between March 2003 and March 2007.