The following report was delivered by Nasim Ahmed to a Palestine Return Centre Workshop on Palestinian prisoners in London earlier this week.
‘I would like to thank the conference organisers for inviting me to deliver this paper. When I was first asked to speak at this conference I was slightly ruffled about presenting a paper about refugees in a conference about prisoners.
My perplexity was short lived because as anyone who has followed the plight of Palestinian refugees, especially those in Lebanon and more recently from Iraq, will see that many Palestinian refugees have an invisible prison wall around them.
They are imprisoned because they are Palestinians, never able to free themselves of their exile, never allowed full rights as human beings, forever stuck in a no man’s land.
This conference, like so many other conferences on the topic of prisoners, focuses on the incarceration of Palestinians by Israel. So therefore, discussions are centred on administrative detention, torture, violations of human rights, Geneva Convention and the broader spectrum of international law. AND RIGHTLY SO.
But it does miss a broader issue, that is to say, many Palestinians face the indignations of a prison and sometimes much worse than any prison. Gaza, as we all know, has been described as a giant prison. Palestinian communities in the old town of Hebron, Palestinians in Qalkiliya, and Palestinians facing the routine challenge at checkpoints are all in a prison.
The truth is that for Zionism to reach its ultimate objective, the imprisonment of Palestinians is a necessary condition.
This point is not meant to be hyperbolic and an appeal to emotion over reason, it’s a fact, and the daily life of Palestinians all over the world is a testament to that fact.
Palestinian Refugees from Iraq
Since our direct involvement with Palestinian refugees from Iraq, two years ago, we carried out a number of projects to relive their suffering. But before providing details I want to provide some background to their plight.
The fate of the 34,000 Palestinian refugees living in Iraq became extremely dangerous following the US lead invasion in 2003 which lead to another Palestinian exodus.
Due to their insecure status in Iraq they became vulnerable to human rights abuses, including murder, abduction, hostage-taking, arbitrary detention, and torture and other ill-treatment. Many incidents, according to numerous human rights organisations, were reported of Palestinians who were assassinated and their bodies dumped at garbage sites bearing torture wounds and mutilation.
Facts which we ourselves would later discover first hand
They have no country to go to, no valid travel documents, no protectors inside Iraq, and hardly anyone to remove them from their captive condition.
Thousands of Palestinians fled this violence and persecution and found themselves stranded on the border between Iraq/Jordan and Iraq/Syria. These families lived in tents, in squalor, with little certainty or hope for the future, like their parents and grandparents did after their expulsion from their own homeland in the 1948 Nakba.
The Palestinian refugees in the border with Syria, were in legal limbo, as they do not fall strictly under the mandate of UNRWA and nor do they have Iraqi citizenship. They are recognised as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Few countries in the region or beyond were willing to accept them for temporary resettlement.
This was partly because neighbouring Arab countries, which are already overwhelmed by refugees, are reluctant to allow new refugees into their country. With nowhere to go they were stranded in several different camps, Al-Hol, Al-Tanaf and Al-Ruweished, which are all coordinated by UNHCR. Conditions are deplorable, with inadequate medical and sanitation facilities.
In response to this crisis we coordinated a parliamentary delegation in November 2009 to visit the camps and hasten some kind of temporary resettlement plan.
The cross party delegation consisted of parliamentarians from major parties in the UK and Ireland.
The delegation was clear in its primary objective which was to seek a temporary resettlement plan with the collaboration of all international stakeholders concerned. This was pursued with the assumption and recognition that the final resolution to the Palestinian refugee crises, including those from Iraq, lie in a peaceful settlement between Israel and Palestine and also through insuring the basic human rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.
We visited Al Tanaf Camp. The first impression when visiting Al Tanaf was its sheer distance from any major towns. From Damascus, it took us three and half hours to reach the camps in government escorted cars.
This no doubt created major problems for a camp which comprises many children, women and the elderly. Internally within the camp itself it was obvious that the refugees are not secure from the elements which, given its location, was invariably extreme; there is no escaping the desert heat in the camp, nor is it a relief from the extreme desert cold and when it rains there is no defence against flooding.
Danger, we were told is everywhere, especially for the children. Heating and cooking systems in the tents regularly cause fires that destroy tents because the families burn kerosene for their cooking and in keeping warm. There are major hazards all over the camp all of which have affected one family or another. On one occasion the mother of a one-year-old child, Muhamed, whom we met, died as a result of a fire which started in the camp. Residents also spoke of the dangers presented by snakes, spiders and scorpions. They further mentioned the dangers presented by the lack of light and very uneven grounds which caused mothers to drop their babies.
The people in al-Tanf were gravely distressed by the conditions in the camp and their fear that they may be stuck for many more years. Residents pleaded with the delegates saying “save us from this hell”. Others made sorrow observations of their plight: “A human being doesn’t live just to eat.” Another said: “We regret that our plight depends on political decisions rather than humanitarian considerations.”
Most of the inhabitants of the camp have arrived from different parts of Baghdad after harrowing tales of terror and intimidation. Many of the camp’s residents described to us the horrific events that prompted them to flee Iraq which has left them traumatised. Some had been kidnapped and tortured. Others had relatives who had been abducted, mutilated and killed. Others spoke of armed militia cutting off ears, gouging out eyes, pouring acid over the head of captives.
Basit Muhammed, a 46 year old Palestinian man is a typical example of the camp’s residents. He was born in Baghdad where after 2003; he claims that 350 Palestinians in his area in Baghdad were killed. When asked why he left Baghdad, he spoke about the Iraqi militias, and the drive to cleanse Iraq of its Palestinian residents.
Everyone we meet in the camp had harrowing stories about their initial expulsion from Iraq. While many had terrible experiences in the camps it was clear that the psychological strain of coming to terms with their violent persecution in Iraq and their new reality was the most shattering. One could have assumed that the Palestinians who were targeted and driven out of Iraq where poor but the story of Sheikh Muhamed, the imam of the camp mosque, shows that violence in Iraq was indiscriminate and no Palestinians irrespective of their social class and standing were protected.
Sheikh, a refugee from the first expulsion in 1948, was an accountant for an import export company from 1958-2005. He described how his two sons were hanged and shot by militias because they were Palestinians. Even though he owned his own home, he was driven out with the remaining members of his family. He said “every family in this camp were driven out either because someone in their family were killed or they were threatened to be killed”.
Working with UNRWA UNHCR
During our delegation we met with President Assad, UNRWA and UNHCR to create greater momentum for closing down the camps and finding temporary accommodation.
UNHCR had successfully secured resettlement for a number of refugees. Sheikh, the imam of the mosque who we met, was amongst the groups of people whose temporary settlement had been arranged. He was given permission to enter Italy while two of his brothers had gone to Canada and one to the UK. It was clear that one of the strains for these families was the separation of the family, a situation which is not in their control. Like Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli jails, some of the Palestinians would also be separated from their families but for a different reason. Since our delegation Al Tanaf has been closed and its inhabitants have been moved either into Syria or to another country.
One would think that after such ordeal the invisible prison walls that deny Palestinians their basic human rights would come down but instead as we found many faced further challenges.
We followed some of the Palestinian refugees to Brazil to investigate the appalling conditions under which they live. To our astonishment we discovered that many are experiencing conditions far worse than the one they fled from.
PRC delegation met a number of families all having similar stories about the lack, and sometimes the total absence, of services. As a consequence some go hungry and families with chronically ill members have no access to health care. The situation has lead some families to despair and anger at the international system which continually fails to free them from their prison.
Upon their arrival to Brazil, instead of finding a more hospitable situation they faced tortuous conditions.
All the promises given to them appeared to be untrue. Promises of minimal health care, education, security and work were untrue. We heard that they protested before the Palestinian embassy in Brazil. They appealed to Brazilian authorities to either give them shelter and assistance or send them back to Palestine or any country that is able to provide basic humanitarian services.
During the visit we met with Luay Oda’s family. Luay’s health situation started to deteriorate dramatically upon his arrival in Brazil. He was not able to breathe except with the help of a special breathing apparatus that is connected to him at all times.
PRC spoke to Luay at great length to determine the level of service he is receiving from the authorities. Luay spoke in great detail about his extreme health condition saying, “I have lived most of my life in Iraq and spent a few years in the stormy desert. Our tents were damaged many times. I never required the use of external oxygen support despite these conditions. But after arriving in Brazil, my health deteriorated and turned worse. Doctors told me that if I don’t undergo a surgery in my lungs, then within three years my lungs will cease to function. At the moment, I’m alive with only half a lung and with the help of this medical oxygen machine. Sadly, UNHCR and Brazilian officials denied me basic medications. They don’t want to provide me with the required health care. Simply, they are killing me!”
PRC is also carrying out a number of documentaries showing the desperate conditions faced by Palestinian refugees from Iraq which will be shown on mainstream media very soon.
In conclusion I would like to add that the feeling of imprisonment the heightened emotions of finding oneself incarcerated within four walls and tortured is felt by Palestinians all over the world. For Palestinian refugees from Iraq, their life has become their prison. Wherever they go to find freedom, security and a basic measure of humanity they have been trapped in a no man’s land, faced conditions worse than the one they left behind and become prisoners of their identity as Palestinians.’