Iraqi Refugees Are Arrested in Lebanon

Mohammed, an illegal Iraqi refugee, counts himself lucky. He has managed to find a carpentry job in Lebanon. And even better, his workplace is near his home — meaning he doesn’t have to drive to work and risk arrest at one of Beirut’s security checkpoints.

Iraqi refugees in Lebanon live in fear of arrest, which could mean a long spell in prison until they agree to go back home to their country.

“I work for little money but at least it is near where I live,” said Muhammad, who was an assistant accounting professor back home in Iraq.

“I am worried that if they detain me, then authorities will detain my wife and children,” the 34-year-old said, refusing — like many Iraqis here — to give his full name for fear of reprisals from police.

Unlike other Arab countries, Lebanon has adopted a policy of arresting Iraqis who are in the country illegally. Often they are kept jailed beyond their original sentences until they agree to return home. About 77 percent of the roughly 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon have entered the country illegally, the Danish Refugee Council estimated in a survey Friday.

Lebanon, a small country with a population of about four million people, already has 350,000 Palestinian refugees mainly living in 12 refugee camps across the country. Some say the large Palestinian refugee population, as well as a fear of tilting the country’s delicate sectarian balance of Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, has made the government reluctant to take Iraqi refugees in.

The Lebanese policy has raised an outcry from human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch. Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for the New York-based group has said that refugees who are arrested face the possibility of sitting in jail indefinitely.

But a Lebanese police general said authorities “are never lenient with people who enter Lebanon illegally, whether they are Iraqis or others.”

The senior officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said foreigners found without proper documents are usually detained and questioned. After a brief detention they are deported to their country.

At least 536 Iraqis are currently being held in Lebanese jails, more than half beyond the length of their original sentence, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a report Friday.

The majority of those released from detention return to Iraq because “this has become the only means to be released,” the report said. Refugees who are not in custody often return to Iraq out of fear they will be arrested, it said.

On Nov. 27, authorities sent back home about two dozen Iraqis who were jailed for entering the country illegally.

The refugee population in Lebanon is but a small part of the more than 2 million Iraqis who have fled the bloodshed in their homeland since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. Syria and Jordan have taken the bulk of the exodus, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis now on their soil.

Most Iraqis who enter Lebanon illegally cross through the long border with Syria. Others enter legally, getting a visa and arriving at the airport. But the visas usually last only for a few weeks.

One refugee, Mohammed Ismail, said that a few months after he entered Lebanon two years ago, he was detained at a police checkpoint in Beirut and spent seven months in the Roumieh prison east of the capital. He was released at the request of UNHCR and now has a permit to stay in Lebanon for six months.

“I did not want to go back to Iraq,” said Ismail, 40, who left his wife, two daughters and three sons in Iraq while he applies for resettlement in a third country.

Some 10,000 Iraqis in Lebanon have applied to the UNHCR for resettlement abroad, said Stephane Jaquemet, the regional representative for the U.N. refugee agency. By the end of 2007, up to 650 will have been resettled — most to the U.S., Canada, Australia and Sweden — with another 1,500 expected to be resettled in 2008, he said.

In the meantime, the Iraqis try to settle into their temporary homeland. Like Iraq, Lebanon is a country of many sects, so refugees tend to find homes in areas where their co-religionists live. Nearly half the Iraqis in Lebanon are Shiite Muslims, while Sunni Muslims and Christians make up about a quarter each, Jaquemet said.