Choosing between one terrible fate and another terrible fate is no choice at all. But it is precisely the choice Lebanon has presented to 580 Iraqi refugees, who have been told to choose between rotting in jail with no end in sight, or return to Iraq and face the possibility of death.
“No one tells me how long I am going to be in prison,” an Iraqi refugee sitting in Roumieh told Human Rights Watch researchers. “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.”
There are 580 Iraqi refugees now in prison in Lebanon, 422 of whom have finished their sentences but remain in jail. Lebanon does not have a refugee law and treats most Iraqis as illegal immigrants, regardless of their intent to seek asylum or their need for protection as refugees. Those who are caught are subject to imprisonment and fines. But after they serve their prison sentences for being in the country illegally, the Lebanese General Security authorities generally refuse to release them. Most can secure their release only by agreeing to return to Iraq.
The problems are not limited to the relatively few who are unfortunate enough to be arrested. With few options to regularize their status, most Iraqis live in fear of arrest. “When we go out, we don’t know whether we will return,” said an elderly Iraqi man living illegally in Greater Beirut. “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.”
The vast majority of Iraqis are not in detention, but are also not officially recognized as refugees and prohibited from working. Many have now run out of their savings. They are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers and landlords. Some do not come out of the shadows or send their children to school even as they become more destitute and needy.
Iraqi refugees need a temporary legal status that would provide, at a bare minimum, renewable residence and work permits. They need assurances that they will not be arrested, and, if they are arrested, they need an opportunity to plead their case for protection and for release from jail.
Certainly, this is not a problem of Lebanon’s own making, and no one should expect Lebanon to shoulder the refugee burden alone or to commit to provide them a permanent home. This is an international responsibility, one for which the United States bears the largest share, a responsibility it has largely shirked. Directly or indirectly, the U.S. war in Iraq has caused more than four million Iraqis to be rendered homeless, about half of whom have been forced to leave their country. Therefore, the United States, in particular, must respond quickly and generously to help refugees in Lebanon, as well larger numbers in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt and those displaced inside Iraq.
But responsibility inheres not just with those who cause a problem. Once faced with the reality of refugees on its territory, Lebanon does, indeed, have an obligation as a responsible member of the international community to provide them certain fundamental rights, most especially the right of non-refoulement—the right not to forcibly returned to persecution, torture, or death.
In theory, Lebanon does not return Iraqi refugees to Iraq against their will. However, in practice the Lebanese authorities coerce Iraqi refugees to “choose” to return to Iraq. By first arresting and detaining Iraqi asylum seekers who do not have valid visas, and then giving those in detention a “choice” between returning to Iraq or indefinite detention, Lebanon in practice commits refoulement—and thereby violates international law.
Governments both inside and outside the region need to recognize Iraqis fleeing violence for what they are: refugees. Each has their obligations. Governments outside the region need to support Lebanon financially and to share the human burden more equitably through resettlement. But Lebanon’s obligation—with or without the support of others—minimally requires it not to force refugees back to serious danger. That includes not forcing them to make choices that put their lives at risk.
Bill Frelick is the Refugee Policy Director at Human Rights Watch and edited the Human Rights Watch report, “Rot Here or Die: Bleak Choices for Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon."