The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) puts the number of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon at 50,000 people, of whom only 8,476 are registered. Another 500 are being held in prison, it says, merely for violating immigration rules.
“This is a question of human rights,” said UNHCR regional representative Stéphane Jaquemet.
Having not signed the UN’s Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, introduced in 1951, Lebanon does not grant asylum to refugees, despite the presence on its territory of more than 400,000 Palestinians.
The overwhelming majority of Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers - 95 percent according to UNHCR figures - are smuggled into Lebanon across the porous border with Syria. Once inside, such Iraqis have no legal status, and lacking protection under international law, are subject to detention and deportation.
“Over 500 asylum seekers and Iraqi refugees are being held in Lebanese prisons,” Jaquemet said. Despite Lebanon’s failure to sign the 1951 convention, authorities still have a duty of care towards Iraqi asylum seekers, he added.
An agreement has been reached between the UNHCR and the government that makes deporting Iraqi refugees more difficult. However, Jaquemet said that in response the authorities were keeping Iraqis arrested on immigration violation charges in prison well past their sentences.
“We are in no way asking that Iraqi refugees be integrated, but keeping refugees in detention after their time is done, only because they cannot be deported, is arbitrary detention,” said Jaquemet.
|Over 500 asylum seekers and Iraqi refugees are being held in Lebanese prisons.|
The UNHCR argues for voluntary repatriation as the preferred solution to Lebanon’s Iraqi refugees, but recognises that will not happen soon.
“Will Iraqi refugees be out of the country in three months? I don’t think so,” said Jaquemet. “But they will not stay for three generations. I do not believe in the catastrophic scenario, or the brighter one.”
The number of refugees signed up with the UNHCR is 8,476 as of early October, against 3,000 in January. Nearly 1,800 are children.
However, Iraqi children are unlikely to attend school as they are sent to work in menial jobs by their parents who believe children are less likely than adults to get caught without official papers, said Jaquemet.
As with Palestinians, refugees in Lebanon find it almost impossible to gain fully legal employment. That would require a Lebanese sponsor who agrees to be legally responsible for them and to pay about US$2,000 a year in administration fees.