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Lebanese authorities arrest Iraqi refugees without valid visas and detain them indefinitely to coerce them to return to Iraq, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

“Iraqi refugees in Lebanon live in constant fear of arrest,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch. “Refugees who are arrested face the prospect of rotting in jail indefinitely unless they agree to return to Iraq and face the dangers there.”

The 66-page report, “Rot Here or Die There: Bleak Choices for Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon,” documents the Lebanese government’s failure to provide a legal status for Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and details the impact of this policy on the refugees’ lives.

Lebanon’s refusal to legalize the stay of Iraqi refugees affects not just the relatively small proportion of Iraqi refugees who are arrested and detained. As a result of this policy, most Iraqi refugees in Lebanon live in fear of arrest. Without legal status in Lebanon, Iraqi refugees are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers and landlords.

Human Rights Watch called on the Lebanese government to grant Iraqi refugees a temporary legal status that would provide, at a bare minimum, renewable residence and work permits. Apart from the small number of Iraqis who have been able to regularize their status, most Iraqi refugees are prohibited from working, and many have run out of their savings. Although entitled to attend public schools, very few Iraqi children enroll because their parents cannot afford to pay for transportation, clothes and books, and because the children are needed to work to contribute to the family income.

All Iraqis who have fled south and central Iraq to seek refuge in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Middle East are generally recognized as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not give legal effect to UNHCR’s recognition of Iraqis as refugees. Instead, the Lebanese authorities treat as illegal immigrants Iraqis who enter Lebanon illegally or enter legally but then overstay their visas, regardless of their intent to seek asylum. Iraqi refugees are then subject to arrest, fines and detention by the Lebanese authorities.

Forcing refugees to return to a country where their lives and freedom are at risk violates the principle of nonrefoulement, the absolute prohibition to send a person to a place where he or she would be threatened with persecution or torture.

“By giving Iraqi refugees no option but to stay in jail indefinitely or return to Iraq, Lebanon is violating the bedrock principle of international refugee law,” Frelick said.

There are an estimated 50,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, a relatively small portion of the 2.2 million Iraqi refugees in the Middle East. Currently there are about 580 detained Iraqis in Lebanon. Lebanon, a country of only 4 million including 250,000 to 300,000 Palestinian refugees, has borne the burden with little outside support.

“Lebanon is not the cause of the Iraqi refugee crisis, and Lebanese are understandably wary of hosting yet another refugee influx,” said Nadim Houry, the Beirut-based Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The United States and other countries that participated in the US-led invasion of Iraq must share the burden of caring for Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and provide durable solutions on their behalf.”

The report urges donor governments and resettlement countries, particularly countries involved in the invasion of Iraq, to respond quickly and generously to UNHCR’s financial appeals and to admit refugees UNHCR refers to them for resettlement. Resettlement countries should be especially open to accepting Iraqi refugees in detention for whom resettlement might be their only protection against coerced return to Iraq.

Select testimonies from Iraqi refugees living in Lebanon featured in the report:

“No one tells me how long I am going to be in prison. I see people who have been here for eight months. If I can’t regularize my status, I will go back to Iraq. If I go back to Iraq, I will be killed. I don’t want to go back, but it is better for me to go back than to spend one more day being locked up with criminals.”
– An Iraqi refugee detained indefinitely in Roumieh Prison in Greater Beirut

“When we go out, we don’t know whether we will return. When I see a police man or a member of the authorities, I am very afraid, despite the fact that I am old and sick. Any time there is a checkpoint, we can get caught.”
– An Iraqi refugee living with his family illegally in Greater Beirut.

“I don’t want to go back to Iraq. I want to stay in Lebanon, even if they break every bone in my body, even if we don’t feel safe here, because we are illegal.”
– An Iraqi father recounted what happened when Lebanese authorities arrested and detained him and his son for illegal entry in 2005. After several months in Roumieh prison, they agreed to return to Iraq in exchange for release from detention. Once back in Iraq, the son was kidnapped. After paying a ransom, they fled again to Lebanon where they are currently living illegally.

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