Syria should immediately reopen its border to Iraqi Palestinian refugees fleeing deadly attacks against their community, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called on the international community, and the United States in particular, to provide financial assistance to Syria to help it host the Palestinian refugees, and to share the burden of this refugee problem by offering third-country resettlement opportunities to Palestinian refugees in Syria.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, Palestinian refugees in Iraq have increasingly become targets of violence and persecution, with abductions of scores of Palestinian men in the past week. In recent months, Shi`a militant groups have murdered dozens of Palestinian refugees and have repeatedly leafleted Palestinian neighborhoods threatening further killings unless the Palestinians leave. On January 23, unidentified men, some in police uniforms, took 30 Palestinian men from their homes in Baghdad: 17 were taken from their homes in the Hai al-Nidal neighborhood, and a further 13 were abducted in the Baladiyet neighborhood. The men, who were released the same day, have refused to talk about their ordeal, but appear to have suffered physical abuse in custody. All have now left their homes in Baghdad, together with their families.

As a result of this violence, scores of Palestinian families have attempted to flee to Syria. Over the past week, nearly 150 Palestinian refugees have arrived at the Iraq-Syria border, bringing the total to nearly 700. On January 24, a group of 73 Iraqi Palestinians arrived, and according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) a further group of about 50 Palestinians arrived at the Syrian border late on January 29.

The Syrian government, however, has refused to allow the Palestinians entry into the country, leaving the refugees stranded at the border. Hundreds more are expected to attempt to make the journey.

“It’s hard to understand why Syria has provided refuge to nearly a million Iraqi refugees but is shutting the door on hundreds of Palestinians also fleeing Iraq,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Syrian government’s mistreatment of these Palestinian refugees contrasts sharply with its declarations of solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

Under customary international law, Syria has a legal obligation not to return refugees to persecution or serious harm, and to allow asylum seekers fleeing widespread human rights abuses and generalized violence to enter the country, at least temporarily, to be screened for refugee status. Human Rights Watch urged Syria to abide by its legal duty to admit immediately the stranded Palestinians at its border.

Consistent with respect for the right to return, Israel should respect requests by the UNHCR to allow those Palestinian refugees from Iraq with origins in Gaza to return to the Gaza Strip.

Finally, Human Rights Watch called on the Iraqi government and the US-led Multi-National Forces in Iraq to take immediate steps to improve security for Palestinian refugees in Iraq and end discriminatory and abusive practices by Iraqi officials.

Background

Human Rights Watch documented the dire plight and uncertain legal situation of Palestinians in Iraq in its September 2006 report, “Nowhere to Flee: The Perilous Situation of Palestinians in Iraq.” The report details the drastic deterioration in the security of Palestinian refugees in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. Prior to 2003 there were about 34,000 Palestinian refugees in Baghdad; today only about 15,000 remain. They are harassed by the Iraqi government and are targeted by Shi`a militia because of the benefits they used to receive from Saddam Hussein’s government and their perceived support for the insurgency in Iraq.

Since 2003, successive Iraqi governments have done little to protect Palestinian refugees, and have often displayed open hostility to them, claiming they are involved in terrorism and supporting the insurgency. Ministry of Interior officials have arbitrarily arrested, beaten, tortured, and in a few cases forcibly disappeared Palestinian refugees. The Ministry of Interior has also imposed onerous registration requirements on Palestinian refugees, forcing them to constantly renew short-term residency requirements and subjecting them to harassment, rather than affording them the treatment they are entitled to as refugees formally recognized by the Iraqi government.

In May 2005 the Syrian government admitted 244 Palestinian refugees who had been stranded at the Jordanian border, as well as another group of around 40 Palestinians who fled to Syria directly from Baghdad. However, since then Syria has refused entry to all Iraqi Palestinians, leaving these Palestinians with nowhere to go.

There are currently 356 Palestinian refugees in the al-Tanf camp in the no-man’s land between Iraq and Syria. About 340 Palestinians are stuck in al-Walid on the Iraqi side of the border. Some of the refugees have been stranded at the border for months, where they face continued threats to their security. The refugees receive humanitarian assistance from UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but conditions in the overcrowded camps are dire, with limited supplies of water, food, fuel and medicines.