WASHINGTON, Jul 15 (IPS) - Approximately 1,350 Palestinian refugees from Iraq are being considered for resettlement in the U.S. after being referred to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Programme by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"Really for the first time, the United States is recognising a Palestinian refugee population that could be admitted to the U.S. as part of a resettlement programme," Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Washington, told the Christian Science Monitor last week.
A State Department spokesman said that the resettlement process for the group actually began in 2008, and so far 24 Palestinians from Iraq have arrived in the U.S.
It will be the largest-ever resettlement of Palestinian refugees into the U.S. It accepted seven Palestinians in 2007 and nine in 2008.
"UNHCR says third-country resettlement is the best answer for this group," the spokesman said, and UNHCR has referred 1,350 of the Palestinians to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Programme.
Thousands of Palestinians fled to Iraq after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Other waves of Palestinian migration to Iraq took place after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and after the 1991 Gulf War, when thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave Kuwait.
The Palestinians were treated well under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein but were also used to attack Israeli policies, and their presence was resented by many Iraqis. After Hussein was deposed in 2003, sectarian violence intensified, and the mostly Sunni Palestinian refugees were targeted by Shiia militias for their ethnicity and for receiving preferential treatment under Hussein's regime.
According to an Amnesty International report, many refugees have suffered "various forms of ill-treatment, intimidation, death threats and abduction by militia groups. Others suffered arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and other ill-treatment by Iraqi and (the Multi-National Force) forces on suspicion that they may have been involved in or have supported Sunni insurgents groups."
"The situation in Iraq is difficult for everyone, but Palestinians in particular," Kristele Younes, a senior advocate at Refugees International, which has been working on resettling the refugees for over two years, told IPS. "These people are stateless, they don't have any papers, (and) many have been living in Iraq for decades."
Many were forced to flee their homes after receiving death threats. The number of Palestinians in Iraq has fallen from around 34,000, before the U.S. invasion, to an estimated 15,000. Of these, 2,642 are living in "dire conditions" in camps on the Syrian-Iraq border, the State Department spokesman said. They have been receiving assistance from the U.S. through UNHCR since 2006.
Al-Tanfcamp is located in the "no-man's land" on the border between Syria and Iraq. According to Amnesty International, "Living conditions in the camp are difficult, with temperatures in the summer reaching 50 degrees or more. The camp is very close to a highway, which makes it dangerous, especially for children."
After a fire in the camp severely burned 25 people, a UNHCR official declared: "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," according to the Amnesty report.
Frelick, who visited a camp outside Jordan, said the refugees were "basically desperate, scared, miserable and ready to just get out of Iraq".
As both Syria and Jordan have refused to accept the refugees, Younes said "resettlement was the only solution for this vulnerable population."
Some critics disapprove of the U.S.'s move, saying that Arab countries would be a more natural choice for the refugees.
"This is politically a real hot potato," Mark Krikorian, director of the Centre for Immigration Studies in Washington, told the Christian Science Monitor. "America has become a dumping ground for the State Department's problems – they're tossing their problems over their head into Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or Omaha, Nebraska."
Sweden and Iceland accepted several hundred refugees last year and Canada announced last month that it would also do the same.
While the U.S. generally doesn't accept Palestinians, Todd Pierce, a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said that the Iraqi population of Palestinians falls under a different category from those in Gaza and the West Bank. Each applicant will be carefully scrutinised for terrorist ties, he adds.
The State Department said it anticipates that most of those found eligible for admission will arrive in the U.S. by early 2010.
"These applicants are currently at different stages of the admissions process. Under U.S. law, however, refugee processing is a multistep process that typically takes many months to complete," the spokesman said.
He said the refugees will be offered the same treatment, at the same cost, as other refugees who are admitted to the U.S.
The State Department works with agencies to place the approved refugees within a network of 350 local programmes around the U.S.
"Like any other admitted refugees, the Palestinians will be served by these programmes in communities that have linguistic and culturally appropriate service capacity, affordable housing, and employment prospects," the spokesman said.
The U.S., which takes in about 80,000 refugees annually, hopes to bring 17,000 Iraqi refugees this year.