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Iranian Refugees Trapped on Iraqi-Jordanian Border

  • Reza Allahyari

The violence in Iraq has displaced thousands of people across the country. For one group of Iranian Kurds, this journey has led them to the Iraqi border with Jordan where they have spent the last two years in hopes of being resettled in a third country. Producer Reza Allahyari recently traveled to their makeshift camp inside Iraq where he learned first hand of their plight. Erin Brummett narrates.

The al-Karama refugee camp has been home to nearly 200 Iranian Kurdish refugees for almost two years. The refugees -- who have spent more than a quarter century living in Iraqi refugee camps -- arrived at the border between Iraq and Jordan after fleeing the al-Tash refugee camp in Iraq's Anbar province in January 2005 following clashes between insurgents and U.S. forces.

They left with hopes of finding a better life, but were stopped just a few hundred meters short of their goal -- denied entrance to Jordan.

Esmaeil Karimi has been a refugee for nearly three decades. "With the beginning of war between Iran and Iraq in 1979, I left Iran but my father was a fugitive for political reasons and had left the country before I did,” he told us.

Since 2005 the refugees have put pressure on the U.N. Refugee Agency -- UNHCR -- to allow them to enter Jordan and be resettled in a third country, citing the insecurity in Iraq.

Hassan Safari has spent most of his life without a home. "I have (lived) three generations as a refugee in Iraq. My father came to Iraq as a young man and died here. I was only a kid. Now I am an old man. This is my son, he has not been schooled. Why should it be this way?" he asks.

Over the past few months the refugees have become more vocal, holding regular demonstrations, including a hunger strike by several Iranian Kurds, to express their discontent with their present situation and bring assistance from the UNHCR and others. But the only help they receive is from the occasional truck driver willing to share a liter or two of water.

Walpurga Englbrecht, a UNHCR official in Amman, Jordan, says the refugee agency can do little to help the group. "We have been in touch with the Jordanian authorities. They were denied entry. And where they are currently, in the no man's land, it is very difficult for (the) UNHCR to actually provide effective protection and assistance. So, we have been in touch with the various representatives for this group in order to see what can be done."

UNHCR officials have offered to relocate the refugees to the Kaveh refugee camp in northern Iraq. But the group has refused, seeing such a move as a step backwards in their efforts to be resettled.

The Jordanian Interior Ministry did not respond to VOA's requests for an interview. And the Jordanian Embassy in Washington declined an interview request. According to published reports, the Jordanian government fears a flood of refugees if they offer entry visas to this group of Iranian Kurds.

For refugee So-Aad Javanmiri, the situation is desperate. "Up to now I have had no joy in my life. My life is over; I am a dead woman walking. Please do something for our children."

Many countries are sympathetic to the Iranian Kurds’ situation. Sweden has transferred 500 Iranian Kurds from inside Jordan to Sweden. But Per Frykholm, the First Secretary at the Swedish Embassy in Amman, says there is nothing they can do unless the refugees are granted entry into Jordan.

"According to Jordanian authorities, there are no refugees of this nature and there are no camps like this in Jordan at this moment,” he said. “Which means this embassy cannot handle things that are not acknowledged by the Jordanian authorities inside Jordan."

The refugees have crafted a makeshift camp offering rudimentary shelter. But there is nothing they can do to help the sick. Kumar is a toddler who was born in the camp. He is unable to stand and his mother's efforts to help him have failed.

"We took him to the Iraqi forces nearby,” she said. “They have a small and limited (supplies) and they gave him some pills. We also informed the U.N., but we have not heard back from them yet."

The pain Media Azizi lives with is etched in her face. The only help these children have received is from Prince Rashed Bin Al-Hassan, the head of the Jordanian Relief Agency who sent officials to evaluate their conditions.

Larry Bartlett is Deputy Director of the Asia and Near East Assistance Office at the U.S. State Department. He says, "We are aware of this group and we have been working mostly with UNHCR and both governments to try to resolve this situation."

When asked what the latest information is about the refugees, he said, "The latest on this situation is [we are] trying to find some kind of durable solution for this group. The group we know is still caught at the border. The Jordanian government will not let them enter Jordanian territory. And we know they also do not want to go back to the al-Tash camp that has now been closed by UNHCR."

Bartlett says efforts are ongoing to resettle the group in a third country. However, the UNHCR has said before that can happen, the refugees need to move to a protected area such as the Kaveh camp in northern Iraq. There, officials with the UNHCR say they could safely look into their request for resettlement. However, such claims are determined based on demonstrated need and is provided at the discretion of resettlement countries that have limited quotas to resettle refugees.

But for those who have spent their whole lives as refugees like Gelavijh Noori, they can only dream about a better life. "Any young adult, any girl who turns 18 or 20 years old has her own wishes in life to be fulfilled. They have their rights and I want to be like them and have a comfortable life."

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