Iraq War Refugees Trapped in Limbo Between Countries

AMMAN, Jordan, May 11, 2006 — -- Stuck in a 21st century lawless no man's land, Khabet Mohammedi depends on the charity of truck drivers.

"Every morning we wake up and go around to find water and other things from the truck drivers. We are living by begging," he explains.

Mohammedi is one of about 200 Iraqi refugees living in a lawless swath of desert between the borders of Jordan and Iraq. The area is not under any governmental jurisdiction.

The refugees are stuck there because Jordan won't let them into the country. And they refuse to move to an alternative camp in Iraq that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has offered.

The way to no man's land is littered with mirages. Shimmering beds of water appear every few hundred feet, only to evaporate instantly when you move closer.

In reality, the landscape is flat and barren, with chunks of black rock covering the sand. Scattered throughout the terrain are knee-high rock pyramids, likely the playtime structures of bored Bedouin children.

Only one road leads directly into the camp from Jordan and runs through to Iraq. Mostly the route is used by truck drivers ferrying goods into a war zone. These are the people supporting the refugees.

The people in the no man's land are Iranian Kurds. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, they lived in a different refugee camp about 90 miles from Baghdad. Most left Iran in 1982, or were born in Iraq.

After the fall of Baghdad, they received threats.

"I saw about 20 armed men with their faces covered," Abdullah Hassan Zadeh told Human Rights Watch in May 2003. "We tried to confront them, but they threatened us with their weapons and told us to go away."

About 1,100 of those Iranian Kurds fled Iraq right away. Others tried to stick it out. But eventually, fear for their lives outweighed a resolve to stay in the country.

In January 2005, about 190 of these Kurds decided to leave Iraq for Jordan.

Others from their camp in Iraq had successfully done the same. But this group's timing was bad. When they arrived at the border, Jordan had had enough of refugees.

At a press briefing in April 2006, Jordanian government spokesman Nasser Judeh told reporters Jordan had reached its threshold for refugees.

"Iraq is surrounded by five countries," he says, as reported by the Jordan Times. "I find it very strange that the emphasis is on Jordan to open up its borders to anybody and everybody."

And so the group found themselves stranded in the middle of the desert, where they have been living for the past 16 months. About half of them are children.

Aside from a few sporadic donations, no one provides the people of no man's land with any food, water, medicines or shelter. Their children can't go to school. Windstorms knock down tents and expose the group to the elements.

Several people have visited the camp without permission from the Jordanian government. There are questions about whether Jordan could even grant permission to a place outside its jurisdiction.

A reporter's request to visit was denied without explanation by the Ministry of Interior. The Jordanian government initially agreed to an interview but later recanted.

Marcy Newman, an American researcher living in Amman, has visited the camp twice.

"Some of the tents are made out of scrap cardboard and things like that," she says.

Video and photos shot by Newman show partially collapsing makeshift tents. Some have gaping holes crudely covered with sheets and plastic tarps.

Aside from their living conditions, the refugees also feel unsafe living a stone's throw from the country they fled.

"Really, it is a lawless area," says Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch refugee policy director. "It is a highly dangerous, insecure area because you don't have rule of law there."

At times the refugees' future seems as barren as the desert they live in.

"When you're inside a country, you always have the hope to at least be integrated locally, or to be resettled to another country," says Frelick. "But if you're in a no man's land you're really just in limbo."

But the no man's land refugees do have one option. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has offered to move the group to a camp in Arbil, in northern Iraq.

"They will have access to education for their children," says UNHCR representative Robert Breen. "They will have access to health for all members of their family. The men will have access to employment."

Other Iranian Kurds -- in some cases the refugees' former neighbors and friends -- are already living at the camp in Arbil. UNHCR says the Kurds would be safe. But the refugees themselves aren't so sure. They fear that going back to any part of Iraq would put them in the same danger they fled, and they refuse to go.

"They want to be resettled outside of the region," says Frelick. "They do not want to go back to northern Iraq. They say that they would be subject to attack."

The refugees hope time will help their cause. But UNHCR and the Jordanian government insist the group could wander that desert for 40 years and they still wouldn't be allowed into the Promised Land.

"[The camp in Iraq] may not be the solution that they prefer," says Breen. "But I'm afraid it's the only solution that's been available to them."

But the refugees don't consider it a solution at all.

"We only want to live like humans," says Mohammedi. "If we die at the border it is better than to die in the north of Iraq."