Syria + 2 more

OPT: Fire sweeps through Al Tanf camp, injures 28 Palestinian refugees

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AL TANF REFUGEE CAMP, Syria-Iraq border, April 25 (UNHCR) - A fire swept through the Al Tanf refugee camp in no-man's land desert area between Syria and Iraq on Tuesday night, leaving 28 Palestinian refugees injured and seven tents destroyed.

"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 Khaled* a Palestinian refugee working as a teacher 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," Khaled added.

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 said they heard several loud explosions as gas cylinders and televisions exploded in the flames.

Three refugees were severely burned and 25 others, mainly children, suffered from minor burns and smoke inhalation. The Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance crew, on 24-hour standby to deal with any potential emergencies in the hazardous environment of the camp, arrived at the scene within minutes.

Fortunately, the previous day UNHCR had brought in extra oxygen canisters for five asthmatic refugee children suffering from the swirling sand and dust around the desert camp. These supplies were used to help over thirty people, mostly children, suffering from the inhalation of toxic smoke fumes.

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.

The camp hosts 389 Palestinian refugees mainly women and children who have fled sectarian violence in Iraq since 2003 and became stranded in the border area for the last 11 months after they were denied entry to Syria or any other neighbouring country. Despite assistance from UNHCR, UNRWA and local organisations, the Palestinians have been living in extremely difficult conditions at the border with nowhere to go and too frightened to return to Baghdad.

"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," said Laurens Jolles, UNHCR's Representative in Syria.

A UNHCR team, loaded with supplies including new tents and bedding, left Damascus at daybreak to arrive at a scene of total devastation finding skeletons of metal beds and a blackened landscape littered with spent fire extinguishers. The smell of burnt plastic lingered in the air.

This fire is the latest horror the refugees have endured, adding to terrors they had faced in Iraq including torture and the killing of family members.

"This was an accident waiting to happen," said Jolles. "In the winter the refugees have 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."

For one refugee, Mohamed*, this is the second time his home has burnt down in the camp. "I lost my home in Iraq, but at least I had my possessions, my dignity. Now I lost all my possessions, my documents, my memories. I fled Baghdad after seeing members of my family killed. Do I have to watch the remainder of my family dying an excruciating death in this hellish place?"

At least 1,000 Palestinians are stranded on Al Tanf and Al Waleed border areas on the Syrian Iraqi borders. UNHCR has repeatedly called for international support but with few results.

"We have nowhere to go. We cannot go back, we cannot go forward," said one mother, her child clinging to her leg.

Palestinians in Baghdad have been the target of violence over the last three years. At least 186 Palestinians have been confirmed killed in Baghdad between April 2004 and January 2007. UNHCR believes the number may be significantly higher. The estimated 15,000 Palestinians still living in the Iraqi capital - less than half the estimated figure in 2003 - remain at high risk.

* Names have been changed to protect identities

By Sybella Wilkes in Damascus