The Iraqi refugees in Beirut who don’t officially exist

namnl-st-1.jpgBlogged by: Toni Oyry
The checkpoints and barricades on nearly every corner of Beirut are frustrating for Beirutis and visiting westerners, but they’re particularly bad news for Iraqi refugees fleeing violence in their home country.

Any Iraqi who doesn’t have a valid visa faces imprisonment or deportation back to Iraq even if they’ve registered with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and hold refugee status.

Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means that the certificate issued by UNHCR isn’t recognised by local security forces, judges or prosecutors.

“Currently there are hundreds of Iraqi refugees being arrested in Lebanon every month. We have witnessed Iraqis rounded up in checkpoints and homes of the refugees being raided,” explains Sean Garcia from Refugees International.

The government has repeatedly stated that Lebanon is not a country of asylum for Iraqi refugees, citing the country’s volatile demographic and social make-up, and the large number of Palestinian refugees already living there.

UNHCR estimates that, overall, there are 2 million Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries, mainly in Jordan and Syria, as well as 2 million Iraqis displaced within their own country.

There are no official statistics on the number of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, but a Beirut-based non-governmental group dealing with refugees and migrants, Frontiers (Rawad) Association, estimates that the number may be more than 40,000.

In July, 432 Iraqi refugees were in detention, and an estimated 40 to 60 are sent back to Iraq each week. The returns are coordinated and funded by the Iraqis’ own embassy in Beirut.

Most Iraqis who have fled to Lebanon are Christians who believed the large Lebanese Christian community would give them shelter. Some are now hiding in the Christian area of east Beirut, Ashrafiya, being looked after by local churches. But many end up living without any protection, often in miserable and humiliating conditions.

The illegal status of many Iraqis denies them all rights. They’re forced to work long hours and can be easily exploited. If their wages aren’t paid, they can’t do anything about it for fear of being arrested.

Their situation is similar to the 3,000 or so Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon without identity documents recognised by the authorities.

Some of these Palestinians arrived after the 1967 Six Day war and weren’t allowed to register with the United Nations as only those displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war have been considered refugees. Others are former Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters who lost any legal status when the PLO was forced out of Lebanon.

It’s difficult for them to access services offered by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which supports Palestinian refugees. They cannot work, travel, own property, register marriages, enroll in public or private higher education, and above all they cannot afford to pay for healthcare.

There are a few non-governmental groups trying to meet the basic health needs of Iraqis who don’t officially exist, but their resources are extremely limited.

Inevitably, aid workers believe that many of the Christian Iraqis are moving into the only areas in Beirut where you don’t find government checkpoints – those controlled by guerilla group Hezbollah. This could lead to further violence towards them.

“The Iraqis are hiding among the Lebanese population, but currently there is a worrying trend of them moving into Hezbollah-controlled southern Beirut, Al-Dahiya,” says Refugees International’s Garcia. “They believe that Lebanese security forces are less likely to come and search for them there. This is not a place we think they should be.”
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