Iraqi Christians opt for Lebanon

By Ferry Biedermann in Beirut
The Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the Beirut suburb of Sid el-Bouchrieh used to be nearly empty on Sundays less than a decade ago, belonging as it does to the tiny Chaldean Christian denomination.

Now, the stark concrete hall is regularly filled to capacity, with hundreds of Iraqi refugees.

“They come here for a sense of community and also because we offer some help,” said the church’s priest, Father Joseph Malkoum.

And help they need in a country that has a well-deserved reputation for being unwelcoming to refugees. Human rights groups and international organisations have castigated the authorities for their treatment of the Iraqis who have trickled into the country since the US-led invasion of 2003 – more than three quarters of them without proper papers.

Lebanon’s political and security crisis has been accompanied by an increase in police crackdowns and random arrests over the past year, said UN officials and other refugee workers. Iraqi detainees are often held indefinitely unless they agree to be sent back.

“The arrests are probably useless from a security point of view,” said Stéphane Jaquemet, the regional representative of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Mr Jaquemet, who has his office in Beirut, said he had not heard of a single Iraqi refugee registered with the UN who has been linked to extremists.

The UNHCR has registered some 10,000 of the estimated 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon but the government does not recognise their refugee status. Lebanese officials say Iraqis are treated no differently than other illegal immigrants who evade the country’s tough entry conditions.

Lebanon’s fractured sectarian landscape and the presence of some 350,000 Palestinian refugees makes the country reluctant to absorb more foreigners. As with the Iraqis, the legal status of the Palestinians in Lebanon is among the worst in the region. Fearing that their presence will upset the sectarian balance, Lebanon has denied Palestinians work opportunities and a chance to integrate for decades.

In spite of the intimidating atmosphere, Iraq’s Christian community has been heading for Lebanon in relatively large numbers. Lebanon’s reputation as a partly Christian-ruled country in a Muslim-dominated region has been part of the lure.

“If you’re a Christian, they let you out of jail after a few days; if you’re a Muslim they keep you locked up,” said a middle-aged Iraqi man outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Mr Malkoum denies that Christians get preferential treatment, but the perception remains. Christians make up just a few per cent of Iraq’s population but they account for more than a quarter of Iraqi refugees in the country, according to a recent report by the Danish Refugee Council.

Lebanon has attracted relatively few Iraqis compared with Syria, where there are more than 1.5m, and Jordan, with some 700,000. The strongest incentive for choosing Lebanon is economic. “It is still much easier to find work here than in Syria,” said Mr Jaquemet.

According to the Danish report, more than half of adult refugees in Lebanon have found employment. But many suffer extreme poverty, partly because the cost of living is relatively high.

One phenomenon among the refugees is the employment of children, who are seen as less likely to be arrested. “I know some children as young as 12 who go to work every day,” said Mr Malkoum. David, an 18-year-old Iraqi man outside the Chaldean church, said he had worked in printing in Lebanon since he arrived nine months ago. “It is dirty work and it pays very little but it’s nearby so it is safer.” He said he had been arrested and released twice by the internal security forces.

The UNHCR has recently noticed signs of movement back to Iraq. But that seems to be confined to Muslims. Most Christians say that they will never return to Iraq because, as a minority, they will always face the risk of being targeted.