"The first three days after our arrival we had nothing to protect us from the rain and the cold," said Khabati Mohammadi, one of 191 Kurdish-Iranian refugees stuck since January 2005 at the Karama border crossing between Jordan and Iraq.
"We had to sleep under plastic sheets,” added Mohammadi, a spokesman for the group.
Lacking official permission to enter Jordan, Mohammadi’s group has remained on the Iraqi side of the border. It is an arid place, which has seen harsh weather conditions in the past winter months, including freezing temperatures and strong winds.
Without shelter in the first few months, the refugees resorted to digging large holes in the ground and covering them with plastic sheets. The group eventually received proper tents from the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights, but no electricity, water or sanitation has been provided in an area completely lacking resources.
The refugees came to the border from the al-Tash refugee camp in Iraq’s western Anbar governorate, following increasing clashes between insurgents and US forces there. Al-Tash, located 110 km west of Baghdad in the area of Ramadi, part of the so-called "Sunni triangle", was for more than two decades home to over 12,000 Iranian-Kurdish refugees who fled their country during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
It is believed that Mohammadi’s group was trying to join another 660 refugees, also of Iranian-Kurdish background, living in a camp in “no man’s land”, on the Jordanian side of the border. However, the camp, which was recognised by Amman, was closed in May 2005 and the refugees were transferred to another camp in Ruweished, about 70 km inside the Jordanian border, where they are awaiting resettlement in another country by the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.
Since it lies outside of Jordanian territory, the settlement has never been officially recognised by Amman. For this reason, the UNHCR in Jordan has been unable to provide proper assistance.
The refugee agency also has limited staff available on the Iraqi side of the border due to frequent attacks on aid workers inside the war-torn country. "The Iraqi-Jordanian border is neither a safe location nor one that UNCHR-Jordan can access to provide protection or assistance," said UNHCR representative in Jordan Anne-Marie Deutschlander at a recent press conference in Amman.
Nevertheless, UNHCR personnel in Jordan have managed to provide a modicum of assistance. In February 2005, the refugees were supplied with food, plastic sheeting, mattresses, blankets and jerry cans to enable them to meet basic needs. This was done through the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organisation (JHCO), a national NGO which works in tandem with UNHCR-Jordan.
But since then the refugees survived by recovering supplies left after the first camp in Jordan was closed last year. At the time, several tents were also provided by the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights, according to the refugees.
Now, men, women and children rely on the goodwill of the hundreds of truck drivers who traverse the border daily. "Thanks to truck drivers and personal contributions from officers who monitor the border, we get some food and water," Mohammadi explained.
An average of 1,400 trucks, laden with all manner of goods, crosses the frontier every day, according to border officials.
Children – the most vulnerable
The most vulnerable of the group’s members are the approximately 85 children with them, who, said parents, do not receive balanced diets or medical care. "I can’t feed my baby properly,” lamented 25 year-old Fereshta Nazari, one of 42 women among the refugees. “He’s not getting enough vitamins."
At first sight, five-year-old Imman Javanmere appears a confident girl as she shakes hands with everyone who visits the desert location. "Hello! How are you?” she asks newcomers. “What is your name? How old are you?"
But the excitement in her face turns to sorrow when she talks about daily life in the camp, surrounded by stones and dust. "We’re poor people,” Javanmere explained. “We have to beg for food and water from the truck drivers.”
Because of insecurity at the border, meanwhile, JHCO doctors refuse to visit the settlement. Only in extreme health cases are refugees taken either to a clinic in Ruweished camp or to a Jordanian hospital, according to border officials.
Despite their grim circumstances, however, no deaths have been reported among the refugees to date.
Alternative site refused
Although the conditions to which they have been subjected are precarious, the refugees have consistently refused a UNHCR recommendation to move them to the northern Iraqi governorate of Arbil for resettlement in a new site at Kawa. This is because they still hope there will be a permanent solution for them through a resettlement to a third country, although it is not a right, according to UNHCR.
The Kawa settlement was opened in September 2005 following an agreement between the Kurdish Regional Government and UNHCR to house refugees away from clashes between insurgents and the US and Iraqi military forces.
"Our problem isn’t a question of starvation. Ours is a political problem," said Mohammadi. Most of the refugees claim to be political opponents of the government in Tehran, and therefore unable to return to their native Iran.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions