Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Palestinians in Iraq: From Asylum to Homelessness

Palestinians in Iraq
Baghdad’s eastern Baladiat district, 26 March 2006. The woman’s three sons and a relative were arrested in May 2005 by Iraqi police on charges of detonating a car bomb in a crowded market in Baghdad. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003 and the recent outburst of sectarian violence, Palestinian refugees have been facing threats and harassment, causing many to flee recently to Syria or Jordan. There are an estimated 34,000 Palestinians in Iraq, with 23,000 registered as refugees, according to UNHCR. Groups of Palestinians arrived in Iraq after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. Karim SAHIB / AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

The diaspora seems to be permanent for the Palestinians. The Palestinian exiles are constantly expanding, and the miserable journey is getting longer in all the places to which they fled, day after day.

Perhaps the Palestinians of Iraq, who were completely absent from the Arab and Palestinian media before their second catastrophe in 2003, embody the literal meaning of this tragedy.

Palestinians in Iraq are short of their livelihood sources. In addition, they are outside of competition for virtually non-existent job opportunities, and they are exposed every day to substantial social, economic and political pressures.

Despite Iraq’s pledge to fully supervise the affairs of Palestinian refugees on its soil and its rejection of the UNRWA work in Iraq, the status of the Iraqi Palestinian refugee did not differ from that of other refugees residing in the agency’s five work areas.

That matter aggravated the troubles in their asylum, since the period before the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, to the massacres during the sectarian militias reign, such as the Badr Organization and Mahdi Army after the invasion, whose first victim was the Palestinian refugee.

The latter found themselves stripped of any international cover to take care of them and provide them with a minimum level of protection.

History of Palestinian Refugees in Iraq

Palestinian asylum in Iraq began with 3,500 refugees, most of whom came to Baghdad from villages around Haifa such as Ijzim, Jaba’ and Ain Ghazal. They came with the Iraqi army that participated in the 1948 war.

Since the arrival of Palestinian refugees to Iraq, the Iraqi government has provided services and housing for them, but poorly. At that time, the Iraqi government introduced a system of shelters, from which the Palestinians suffered greatly. Shelters were large old abandoned buildings. Each building consisted of 30 to 80 rooms, and each family of up to seven individuals was given a room, and the whole building contained only two bathrooms.

Palestinians were also housed in the deserted homes of Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel and in some abandoned government institutions.

The number of Palestinian refugees gradually increased until 1950 to 5,000. The increase occurred because several Palestinian families were able to reunite. After that, the Iraqi Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs created the Directorate of Palestinian Refugee Affairs to facilitate the residence of Palestinians.

At that time, Palestinians found themselves in a positive environment, as Iraqis showed mutual affection. However, successive governments did not come up with an adequate solution to their problems. That situation changed with Abd al-Karim Qassem, who established 300 residential houses for them. The total area of each house amounted to 50 square meters. After that, the former Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr built a housing complex for Palestinians at the expense of the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works.

Before the U.S. Invasion

Palestinians in Iraq were not registered in UNRWA’s records, which was established in 1949. Thus, they were not included in the international definition of a Palestinian refugee, which the agency formulated as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period June 1, 1946, to May 25, 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

Accordingly, they are considered recognized refugees, and the agency provides for their living and legal needs in its areas of operation until there is a just solution to their cause. The Palestinians were not registered because the Iraqi government refused to be one of UNRWA’s areas of operations. At that time, the government pledged to the agency to fully supervise their affairs and provide them with aid.

Therefore, the Iraqi government provided educational opportunities to the Palestinians, including free education at all levels of education. Haythamiya and Mahdiyya schools were among the first schools to receive Palestinian students since the late 1950s. Also, Palestinian refugees were included in free health care and granted the right to be employed in all ministries except the ministries of Defense and Interior.

The Palestinians did not take long to blend in and spread in several areas in Iraq, such as Baghdad, Mosul and Basra after their numbers increased to 41,000 refugees throughout Iraq before the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003.

The legal conditions of the Palestinians remained ambiguous on several levels, such as owning a phone line, renewing a driving or work permit, or even owning a car or house. However, the Revolutionary Command Council in Saddam Hussein’s regime made a decision in 2001 that equalized between the Palestinian and the Iraqi in all citizenship rights, including the right to own property, move freely and full career progression, except for the right to run for office and the right to vote.

Politically, activities of the Palestinians were limited to the ranks of the Palestinian organizations and factions that were present in Iraq, which focused on restoring their rights from the Israelis. The list included the Palestinian Liberation Front PLF (the Abu Abbas Wing), and Sabri al-Banna – Abu Nidal organization. Some Palestinians chose to join the ranks of the ruling Baath Party during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Post the U.S. invasion

Palestinians in Iraq
A Palestinian woman washes clothes at the entrance of her tent at the Haifa club refugee camp on the outskirts of Baghdad 05 November 2004. AFP PHOTO/Marwan NAAMANI.

The security situation of the Palestinians in Iraq deteriorated with invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces and the formation of parties opposing Saddam Hussein’s regime. Some of those parties mobilized people against the Palestinian presence, considering them remnants of the late regime. Some parties described the Palestinians as foreigners and nationals of another state, revoking all previous Iraqi state decisions that granted them the status of permanent residents in the country.

The restrictions on the Palestinians started by imposing new procedures regarding their legal residency. These measures began during the government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari and escalated during Nuri al-Maliki’s reign. At that time, Palestinian refugees were asked to renew their residency permits every three months, amid complications and stalling that led, in many cases, to the arrest and detention of dozens of young men on charges of illegal residency.

In 2006, with the support of the U.S. invasion forces, the armed militias of the ruling sectarian parties killed hundreds of Palestinians and arrested thousands of them for their identity. That came in conjunction with the forced displacement and repeated incursions into the municipality complex, accompanied by dogs, under the pretext of searching for weapons.

Information and facts about the recent period

As a result of all this pressure, thousands of Palestinians fled Iraq, heading to Syria and Jordan, where both countries also refused to accept them. They had to set up tents and stay in them for three years until they were granted asylum in several countries such as Brazil, the Czech Republic, Canada, Britain and Norway, while hundreds of them fled across the Mediterranean toward Europe.

The fate of many Palestinian detainees in the prisons of the Iraqi authorities is still unknown, some of which date back to 2003. Information is also missing about those who were detained in secret prisons affiliated with unknown militias. The same applies to those arrested by the U.S. forces during the invasion and handed over to the Iraqi authorities.

The regime in Iraq also imprisoned others under the pretext of involvement in terrorist acts, accusations that many consider false and levelled against them for being the weakest link in Iraqi society or through false informants.

Those aspects led to a decrease in the number of Palestinians residing in Iraq to 3,500 refugees from 43,000 in 2002. It is worth mentioning that these Palestinians are among the poorest segment of the population who do not have enough money to leave the country. Most Palestinians live in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. A few of them live in areas of high tension and danger.

Palestinians of Iraq suffer from the most severe types of diaspora because of political parties, interests and ideological connections. These parties have been using them as a winning card in their political games and interests for a long time. Such a thing occurs with the complete absence of international organizations meant to be concerned with their affairs.



– Al-Iraqi, I., Palestinians in Iraq are History. Duniya Al-Watan, Link:

– Human Rights Watch, Report: No Escape: Dangerous Situation for Palestinians in Iraq, Link:

– The Future of Palestinian Refugees and the Diaspora’s Palestinian, Middle East Studies Center. 2002. (Arabic Link).

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