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INTERVIEW-Plight of Iraq's Palestinian refugees worsens-UN

Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Reuters


DAMASCUS, May 14 (Reuters) - Intense heat and a lack of water and medical care are making life "hell" for around 1,000 Palestinians stranded in a camp near Iraq's border with Syria, a U.N. official who visited the refugees said on Monday.

A baby has died from fever and a man from asthma at the desolate al-Waleed camp in the desert. A 13-year-old needs a back operation to avoid paralysis and a two-year-old girl with cerebral palsy has no specialist care, said Michelle Alfaro, Iraq protection officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"The refugee numbers are swelling by the day. It's a tragedy for these people to start dying from preventable diseases after escaping Baghdad to save their lives," said Alfaro, who obtained a clearance from the Syrian authorities to cross to the camp.

"The conditions are especially treacherous for children. There is nothing green to be seen anywhere. With the heat and dust, life is hell," Alfaro told Reuters and the BBC at the offices of the UNHCR in the Syrian capital.

Most of the refugees fled persecution and violence in Baghdad, where Iraq's Palestinian community is concentrated. Complicated procedures to reach the camp from Syria and lack of security on the Iraqi side have hampered aid efforts, Alfaro said.

Iraq had 30,000 registered Palestinian refugees before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The community became the target of attacks partly because of the government's support for the Palestinians under Saddam Hussein's rule.

Syria stopped taking in Palestinian refugees from Iraq after allowing in 250 a year ago. It allows pregnant women and sick people from Tanf, another camp sheltering 389 Palestinian refugees in the no man's land on the border, to go to Syrian hospitals for treatment but sends them back afterwards.

Damascus says it is cooperating with international organisations but that other countries in the region, including Israel, should take in a proportion of the Palestinian refugees from Iraq.


Alfaro said the UNHCR recognised the dimension of the problem but urged Syria to facilitate movement into Waleed.

The camp has only one doctor, himself a Palestinian refugee and no regular water supply. Each refugee receives 1.5 litres of bottled drinking water every two days.

"If only we could get the medical cases out, but we need regular access from Syria. The nearest hospital in Iraq is five hours away but it's dangerous to go there," she said.

The number of refugees at al Waleed has risen sevenfold since January and attacks against Palestinians in Baghdad show no signs of halting, she said.

"One woman watched her home burn. She was not even allowed to collect her ID cards from the house. Others suffered torture," Alfaro said.

The UNHCR, which considers all Palestinians still in Iraq at risk, says 200 to 300 have been killed there since the U.S.-led invasion removed Saddam from power.

Syria already hosts more than one million Iraqi refugees and 430,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. Most are descendants of those who fled their land when Israel was created in 1948.

:: Article nr. 32863 sent on 14-may-2007 21:42 ECT


Link: www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/OWE436114.htm

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