“Allow to Pass Freely and Give Every Assistance”—Palestinian refugees in Iraq

Kathy Moorhead Thiessen


In 1943 the British High Commissioner issued Muhammad Ahmad a Palestinian passport in the British-controlled region of Palestine. It gave the command “to allow the bearer to pass freely without hindrance and to afford him every assistance and protection of which he may stand in need.” In 1948, he fled the war between the Jewish settlers and Palestinian inhabitants to Baghdad, Iraq.  In 2015 his descendants have flown again, this time to Iraqi Kurdistan.  The family treasures the ancient passport, but the command means nothing to anyone.

Twenty-two members of the extended family live together in a house in a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. For many years they had established a good life in Baghdad–they had cars, houses and thriving businesses. However, in 2005 they began to receive threats. Men in cars with masked license plates harassed the younger men. Shi’a militia searched their houses for bombs or bomb making materials. They are Sunni Muslims and an ethnic minority and thus the militia accuse them of association with Da’ash/ISIS.

In January 2015, the threats and danger became too much. NGOs in Baghdad encouraged them to flee to the more secure region of Iraqi Kurdistan. They could have a place in a registered camp but they fear that the Iraqi authorities will learn of their location.  They are anxious that the Kurdish security police will extradite them back to Baghdad. As they live in the city they are not eligible for aid or residency cards. Without the cards they cannot find employment either. So, they hide in a secluded house, relying on friends to pay the rent.

According to Muhammad’s grandson, the Shi'a militia spray-painted a message on the door to his house.  The writing scrawled in black paint says that this building is not to be sold or rented. The militia added a new lock to bar entry.  They cannot go back to Baghdad without fear of apprehension. They cannot stay in Iraqi Kurdistan and live a free and safe life.

UNHCR reports that in 2003 there were 34,000 Palestinians lived in Baghdad. By 2008 the count was 9,000 and it has continued to decrease.  The family told us that in the last few months another eighty families have fled the city. Many have set out on a perilous journey using smugglers to the perceived safety of the European Union. They know of eight families who have drowned attempting to escape their situation by crossing the Mediterranean.

The team contacted Amnesty International with a report on this visit.  They replied that they have been monitoring the situation of Palestinian refugees in Iraq, including the Kurdish Regional Government area, and are about to publish their findings. They said, “the testimony you collected confirms the information we have received from other Palestinian families, in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan”.

The Palestinian passport that the family treasures was shown to us as an important piece of the family’s history. They wondered whether it would be helpful to take it to the UK Consulate. When the team investigated the logistics of obtaining ancestral visas we discovered that UK does grant papers to those holding documentation from British colonies.  However, this applies only for passports dated post January 1949—after the creation of the state of Israel.  So we wonder, who will, “afford Muhammad Ahmad (and his ancestors) every assistance and protection of which he/they may stand in need?”

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