Baghdad: new refugee camp opens for Palestinians

 Maureen Jack from the Christian Peacemaker Team sends this report. In addition to the loss of their homeland, the situation of Palestinians dispersed throughout the Middle East has been precarious for over fifty years. In Iraq it has never been satisfactory, but since the recent war and the fall of the previous regime the position has been even worse; many Palestinians have been made homeless and a new refugee camp has had to be established in Baghdad. UNWRA is the UN agency that is responsible for Palestinian refugees, but it was not allowed to operate in Iraq. Instead, successive Iraqi governments undertook to provide accommodation for those Palestinians who fled to Iraq directly after Al Naqba in 1948; the figure of 5000 at that time has now grown to 35000. Some families were housed in government- owned accommodation, some rented their own accommodation, and some were housed by the Iraqi government in privately-owned accommodation, with the government paying the rent. Over the years, the government failed to increase the rent paid to the Iraqi landlords, thus creating resentment. With the fall of the previous regime, some, but not all, landlords took the opportunity to evict their Palestinian tenants, so that they could rent out the property at rents that reflected current market rates. So, once again, there are Palestinian families living in tents as refugees, this time at Haifa Stadium and Cultural Centre in Baghdad. When the Iraq Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) visited the camp on 12 July 2003 there were 291 families living there, 50 more than when some of the team had visited a month before; several hundred other families have been served with eviction notices, and so the number of those who are homeless is likely to increase further. Conditions in the camp are very difficult and the people living there are suffering considerable hardship. Toilet and washing facilities have been extended but are still limited and basic; water for cooking and washing comes from communal standpipes. Each tent houses a family; in some cases this means seven people sleeping together with scarcely room for them all to lie down. A few of the tents have some electricity provided by a generator but most tents are without electricity. Under the sun of a Baghdad summer a tent with no relief from a fan is not only uncomfortable but also potentially dangerous. Last week a woman died because of the heat. The camp administrators and the Red Crescent do what they can to protect the most vulnerable, by providing a nursery for young children in the centre's building and by arranging for the elderly to spend time inside, but there are more people in need of respite from the heat than can be provided for. Some camp residents spend the day with relatives, only returning to the camp to sleep. No one in the camp says that they come from Baghdad; they come from Gaza, Hebron, and other places in the West Bank. What everyone wants is to return to their families' homes in Palestine. In the meantime, however, what they want and need is secure housing in Baghdad with essential amenities. What no one wants is for there to be a refugee camp at Haifa other than for immediate relief. Additional buildings will be an admission of defeat rather than an achievement. This week the CPT team has, along with other internationals associated with groups such as Voices in the Wilderness, Bridges to Baghdad and Occupation Watch, been supporting a peace tent at the camp as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinians' demands for secure housing. The international community cannot allow Haifa to become as seemingly permanent as Sabra, Shatila, or Aida camps. And the occupying authority cannot, in all conscience, allow the suffering of the Palestinian families at Haifa to continue. Christian Peacemaker Teams is an initiative of the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers, with support and membership from Catholic and Protestant denominations.

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