Syria refuses to help refugees driven from Iraq

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The Independent Online

More than 700 Palestinian refugees who have been driven out of Iraq are stranded in squalid tented camps on the Syrian border. Damascus is refusing to let them in, despite the wintry conditions and limited supplies of food, water, fuel and medicines.

"This is a human tragedy," Tayseer Nasrallah, head the of the refugee affairs committee in the West Bank city of Nablus, protested yesterday. Other Palestinians charged the Iraqis with ethnic cleansing. Officials in Ramallah said at least 180 Palestinians had been murdered in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Human Rights Watch reported last week that only 15,000 of the 34,000 Palestinian refugees living in Baghdad before 2003 were still there. "They are harassed by the Iraqi government and are targeted by Shia militias because of the benefits they used to receive from Saddam Hussein's government and their perceived support for the insurgency in Iraq," said the New York-based organisation.

"Ministry of Interior officials have arbitrarily arrested, beaten, tortured and in a few cases forcibly 'disappeared' Palestinian refugees. The ministry has also imposed onerous registration requirements on Palestinian refugees, forcing them to constantly renew short-term residency permits and subjecting them to harassment."

The human rights group accused Shia militant groups of murdering dozens of the refugees in recent months and leafleting Palestinian neighbourhoods threatening further killings if they did not get out. On 23 January unidentified men, some in police uniform, abducted 60 Palestinian men from their homes in three Baghdad neighbourhoods. When they were released, they showed signs of physical abuse. All have now left Iraq with their families.

Nadia Othman, a 36-year-old who has three children, managed to reach Jordan after Shia gunmen killed one of her brothers on his way to teach at a school. "The murderers stopped him in the street and asked for his identity papers," she told The Jerusalem Post. "When they saw that he was a Palestinian refugee, they immediately fired three bullets at his head."

The Palestinian Authority is watching in frustration. Ayman Abu Laila, a spokesman for the Ministry of Refugee Affairs, said the Iraqi government would not let them send a delegation to Baghdad to find a solution. They had, he claimed, persuaded Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's senior Shia cleric, to ban the killing of Palestinians. It seems, however, to have had little effect.

Human Rights Watch appealed to the Syrian government to let the refugees in. Sarah Leah Whitson, its Middle East director, said: "It is hard to understand why Syria has provided refuge to nearly a million Iraqi refugees, but is shutting the door on hundreds of Palestinians. The Syrian government's mistreatment of these Palestinian refugees contrasts sharply with its declarations of solidarity with the Palestinian people."

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