The State Department confirmed today that as many as 1,350 Iraqi Palestinians – once the well-treated guests of Saddam Hussein and now at outs with much of Iraqi society – will be resettled in the US, mostly in southern California, starting this fall.
It will be the largest-ever resettlement of Palestinian refugees into the US – and welcome news to the Palestinians who fled to Iraq after 1948 but who have had a tough time since Mr. Hussein was deposed in 2003. Targeted by Iraqi Shiites, the mostly-Sunni Palestinians have spent recent years in one of the region's roughest refugee camps, Al Waleed, near Iraq's border with Syria.
"Really for the first time, the United States is recognizing a Palestinian refugee population that could be admitted to the US as part of a resettlement program," says Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch in Washington.
Given the US's past reluctance to resettle Palestinians – it accepted just seven Palestinians in 2007 and nine in 2008 – the effort could ruffle some diplomatic feathers.
For many in the State Department and international community, the resettlement is part of a moral imperative the US has to clean up the refugee crisis created by invading Iraq. The US has already stepped up resettlement of Iraqis, some who have struggled to adjust to life in America.
The resettlement of Iraqi Palestinians is "an important gesture for the United States to demonstrate that we're not heartless," says Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern studies at New York University.
But some critics say the State Department is sloughing off its problems onto American cities, especially since in this case the Palestinians were sympathizers of Hussein, who was deposed by the US.
"This is politically a real hot potato," says Mark Krikorian, director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, adding, "[A]merica has become a dumping ground for the State Department's problems – they're tossing their problems over their head into Harrisburg, Pa., or Omaha, Neb."
Palestinian refugees came to Iraq in successive waves over several decades, first in 1948, then in 1967, and in 1991. They were treated well under Hussein but were also used to attack Israeli policies, and their presence was resented by many Iraqis.
After Hussein was deposed in 2003, many of these Palestinians were driven out of their homes and now live "at the mercy of the weather" in rough camps along the Syrian and Jordanian border, says Mr. Ben-Meir. The number of Palestinians in Iraq has fallen from around 34,000 to an estimated 15,000, with about 2,773 living in camps, according to the State Department.
The US, which takes in about 80,000 refugees annually, hopes to bring 17,000 Iraqi refugees this year.
Categorized as Iraqi refugees
While the US generally doesn't accept Palestinians, Todd Pierce, a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, says that the Iraqi population of Palestinians falls under a different category from those in Gaza and the West Bank. Each applicant will be carefully scrutinized for terrorist ties, he adds.
The US reluctance to accept Palestinians is because it "doesn't want the refugee program to become an issue in its relationship with Israel," says a diplomat in the region, who requested anonymity because he is not cleared to talk to the press. But these Palestinians, he says, will be processed as refugees from Iraq.
Mr. Krikorian says the US should be the last refuge for those fleeing persecution. Only Jordan of all the Arab countries routinely grants citizenship to Palestinian refugees, he notes. More recently, says Mr. Frelick, Jordan has also shut its borders to Palestinians coming from Iraq.
Frelick, who has visited a camp on the Jordanian border, said the Iraqi Palestinians are "apolitical," and "basically desperate, scared, miserable, and ready to just get out of Iraq."