UN hails Lebanese legalization of Iraqi refugee status

The UN refugee agency welcomed Wednesday a decision by Lebanese authorities to regularize the status of hundreds of Iraqi refugees considered illegal in the country. The government started this week to give Iraqis who entered Lebanon illegally or overstayed their visas a three month period to legalize their status. An announcement posted on the Web site of Lebanon’s General Security Department urged Arab and foreign nationals whose residency contradicts the law or who entered the country illegally to visit the department’s offices to resolve their situation. It also said they would be granted a year’s stay or ordered to leave the country. UNHCR said this decision would benefit thousands of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and would lead to the release of hundreds from detention. In a statement issued Wednesday, the refugee group said it will support the release process and provide assistance to those released from detention and to their families, as well as provide legal aid to Iraqis who wish to meet the regularization requirements. “The Lebanese decision benefiting Iraqi refugees is of particular significance given that it has been taken during a time when the country has been facing political turmoil and volatile security. This is a courageous decision,” said Stephane Jaquemet, the UNHCR representative in Lebanon. Jaquemet added that UNHCR’s priority over the next few months will be to assist the detainees upon release. “After several months of detention, many of them will be destitute,” he said. 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 late last month. The Lebanese policy has raised an outcry from human rights groups. In October 2007, up to 584 Iraqis were in detention in Lebanon because of their irregular status. Many of them had served their sentences but were still being arbitrarily detained.