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The challenge of finding long-term solutions for refugees in Central Iraq
Refugees International, via electroniciraq.net
13 August 2003
In addition to coping with the estimated 900,000 internally displaced persons living within the borders of Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is further challenged with guaranteeing the provision of short-term assistance as well as identifying long-term solutions to the plight of thousands of refugees residing in the country.
Two groups of refugees in central Iraq -- Palestinians and Iranian Kurds -- epitomize the situation for refugees living in Iraq. Permanent solutions will either serve to facilitate the stabilization process or, instead, potentially inflame ethnic tensions, thereby hindering the achievement of the CPA's overall objectives.
Since the end of the recent war, the Al Awda Refugee Camp in Baghdad, better known as the Haifa Sports Club, has been home to approximately one third of all Palestinian refugee families living in Baghdad. Displaced by an inability to pay new, higher rents imposed by Iraqi landlords who, under the former regime, were forced to accept below-market-value rental fees from Palestinians; or forced from government-subsidized housing, 1,100 Palestinian families found themselves homeless after the end of the fighting. Most families found alternative housing by moving in with friends and other family members. Around 360 families, however, were forced to seek refuge at the Sports Club. New families continue to arrive. It was here that Palestinian families lived in tents in sweltering heat with inadequate water and sanitation facilities for two months before the CPA became aware of their existence.
Refugees International brought the plight of Palestinian refugees in Baghdad to the attention of the CPA in May. Since that time conditions have improved greatly at the camp. During a recent visit to Al Awda, RI found that camp administrators and displaced families had few complaints about their living conditions. There is now an adequate supply of clean water, all tents are equipped with a large fan powered by continuous electricity, and sufficient food rations are available. A well-equipped and well-staffed health clinic is located in the camp and trash is now regularly collected. In addition, UNHCR is registering the refugees and providing them with official refugee identity cards. (Although the former regime granted all Palestinians living in Iraq official refugee status -- even those who were born and raised in Iraq -- the regime did not allow UNHCR to register them. Rather, the Iraqi government was solely responsible for seeing to the needs of Palestinians.) Computer classes are available in the former Sports Club library and UNHCR is rehabilitating both the swimming pool and the playground area. Even security is no longer an issue of great concern, according to camp residents.
While the short-term needs of the Palestinian refugees are being met, the more important and potentially volatile issue has yet to be adequately addressed: Where will the Palestinian refugees eventually go? Many of the families would like to go to Palestine. However, considering the tenuousness of the current peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, this possibility seems unlikely. Some would like to resettle in third countries. This solution is also improbable since few countries are willing to accept Palestinian refugees from any location. Another alternative, and according to senior UN officials and others familiar with the Palestinians' situation in Iraq, the most tenable one, is to relocate Palestinian families to property south of Baghdad. The former regime had promised the Palestinians a particular tract of land and funds to build houses. While the construction funds will most likely no longer be made available, discussions are underway between the UN and the CPA to provide this land to the Palestinians. In discussions with Palestinians at Al Awda, many would be willing to relocate to land provided by the government even if they would need to pay for the construction of their own homes.
In the interim, UNHCR has received approval from the CPA to construct apartments in government buildings in Baghdad to serve as temporary housing until the Palestinians can be resettled permanently. In addition, at the request of L. Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA, UNHCR has agreed to provide the extra apartments (more will be constructed than needed for Palestinians) to other Baghdad-based Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). However, one significant obstacle remains. The targeted buildings are located in a military compound that is currently being used by Coalition forces that do not want refugees and IDPs living there. Negotiations will continue.
The situation of Palestinian refugees in Iraq is similar to that of other refugees who have long lived in the country. Iranian Kurds, for example, live in Al Tash, located near the town of Ar Ramadi, about a 2-hour drive from Baghdad. Al Tash was established 23 years ago to cope with the influx of Iranian Kurds displaced by war as well as those who sought refuge as political refugees. Before the war, there were 20,000 Iranian Kurds living in Al Tash. During and after the war, more than half left the camp voluntarily to resettle elsewhere -- leaving around 8,500 camp residents.
Life at Al Tash was more difficult directly after the recent conflict as a result of neighboring Iraqis' aggression. Water pipelines were cut, for example, leaving camp residents to survive on a two-hour water supply made available only every 15 days. Iraqis also threatened camp residents with violence and killed at least one Iranian Kurd as he made his way to work outside the camp. Looting by both neighboring Iraqis as well as camp residents after the war also contributed to a decline in living conditions at the camp.
Two months later, however, conditions have improved at Al Tash. Water tanks deliver 8,000 liters of water daily. The camp's water pump is being repaired. The electricity supply is not at the pre-war level, but it is steady: three hours on and three hours off. Food rations remain the same as pre-war rations. The Coalition forces conduct security patrols once or twice per day and UNHCR is making repairs to the Al Tash police station. A new camp manager as well as policemen will be hired as well. The Al Tash medical clinic continues to be staffed by four Iraqi doctors and one dentist. While certain medicines are in short supply and medical care for serious health conditions cannot be provided, the clinic continues to be supplied with many of the medicines required. In speaking with camp residents, for instance, there were no complaints about a lack of food or sickness brought on by impure water or a lack of water.
The primary concerns of camp residents were security, a lack of funds, and resettlement. Al Tash residents are unhappy with what they consider insufficient patrols made by the Coalition forces. Camp leaders claim to sell part of their food rations in order to purchase weapons to protect themselves. In terms of funding, camp residents received regular "salaries" from the former government. However, nine months ago, these payments were discontinued and camp residents have yet to receive any funds from the CPA.
While security and salaries are important issues, camp residents are most concerned with their futures. They demand that they either be repatriated to Iran or allowed to resettle as political refugees in Europe. An official request for the resettlement of these Iranian-Kurds to Iran has been made through UNHCR. However, according to UNHCR officials, Iran has not yet granted this request and seems unlikely to do so. Despite requests to allow most camp residents to resettle in Europe or return to Iran, camp residents also stated that if security at the camp were improved and people could get jobs, they would probably stay. Another option for resettlement mentioned by Al Tash residents was their relocation to areas within the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Political parties in the KRG have offered Al Tash residents land on which to resettle in the Suleymaniah and Erbil governorates. While the UN is discussing ways to facilitate this move, there is concern that relocating the Iranian Kurds of Al Tash to certain KRG areas has political implications that should be considered. Increasing the number of Kurds in certain regions will increase the power of the political parties that control these areas. Such a move might increase tensions and disrupt the fragile alliance between the ruling Kurdish political parties in the north.
Resettling Palestinian and Iranian Kurdish refugees, like all other displaced groups in Iraq, is not only logistically demanding but also politically complex. Suitable short-term solutions, e.g., moving the Palestinians out of tents and into durable housing, requires political consensus in addition to adequate funding for reconstruction. While short-term assistance is crucial, devising long-term resettlement solutions that address the needs of refugees and, moreover, take into account the political, ethnic and economic tensions within the country as a whole is imperative. Where and how refugees are resettled as well as what sort of official status they will be granted should they choose to remain in Iraq will directly impact Iraq's ability to establish a stable democracy and undertake effective self-government.
Refugees International therefore, recommends that the Coalition Provisional Authority:
Building on plans previously developed by the United Nations, work closely with the government and the UN to devise short- and long-term solutions for specific refugee populations, as well as an overall strategy to address this situation.
Resettle refugees with, rather than before, other displaced populations.
Develop a public information campaign to explain why, where and how refugees will be resettled.
As a short-term solution, immediately relocate Al Awda Camp residents (and other Baghdad-based IDPs who lack adequate shelter) to the government buildings targeted for reconstruction as apartments.
As a long-term solution, offer Palestinian refugees, regardless of their current location in the country, the opportunity to settle permanently on land previously designated by the Iraqi government. Provide long-term loans to meet the costs associated with such a move, e.g., building materials, payment for land, etc.
As a long-term solution, offer Iranian Kurdish refugees living in Al Tash the opportunity to either remain at Al Tash or to resettle on land offered for this purpose by the northern governorates of Iraq.
Grant all Palestinian and Iranian Kurdish refugees the right to work, own property, attend school, access social services, etc.
Provide Palestinian and Iranian Kurdish refugees with the same amount and type of assistance that other displaced persons receive in order to avoid accusations of political favoritism.
Brenda Oppermann is Refugees International's Field Representative for Iraq.
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