III. Background

The Iraqi Displacement Crisis

As of late 2007, the Iraqi displacement crisis shows no signs of abating. Faced with unprecedented levels of insecurity, tens of thousands of Iraqis continue to leave their homes each month. UNHCR estimates that more than 2 million people are now displaced inside Iraq and another 2.2 million Iraqi nationals have sought safety in countries in the region.1 The vast majority of the Iraqis who have fled abroad have gone to Syria, which hosts an estimated 1.4 million Iraqi refugees, and to Jordan, which is estimated to host up to 750,000 Iraqi refugees.2

Not all of the millions of Iraqis who are currently displaced left their homes due to the present security situation in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis left the country prior to the fall of the regime in April 2003 to escape from human rights abuses and persecution, the Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 Gulf war, or the impact of the economic sanctions against Iraq.3

At the time of the US-led invasion, UNHCR warned of the possibility of a massive outflow of refugees. While some Iraqis did flee the country at that time, no large-scale refugee crisis occurred. But what did not happen in 2003 did happen three years later: the bombing of the Shi`a al-`Askariyya shrine in Samarra’ in February 2006 led to increased sectarian violence and a further surge in the number of Iraqis fleeing their homes. There are no signs of this exodus coming to a halt. On the contrary, the dismal security situation in Iraq is displacing ever more people. In 2006, Iraq was the main country of origin for asylum seekers in 36 industrialized countries in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, for the first time since 2002.4 UNHCR estimated in January 2007 that since February 2006 — i.e., over the previous 11 months — 822,000 Iraqis have become internally displaced,5 and that 40,000 to 50,000 new people are forced into internal displacement every month.6

Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon

Measured against the enormity of the Iraqi displacement crisis, Lebanon hosts a relatively small number of Iraqi refugees, estimated at around 50,000, of whom about 10,000 were in Lebanon prior to 2003.7  But looked at from a different perspective, Lebanon carries a disproportionate share of the Iraqi refugee burden. Although Lebanon does not border Iraq, it faces a steady inflow of Iraqi refugees, most of whom enter the country from Syria.

Germany, the country with the largest Iraqi refugee population outside the Middle East, hosts a similar number of Iraqi refugees as Lebanon: 52,900 as of April 2007.8 But Germany’s population is about 21 times the size of Lebanon’s, and its GDP per capita is almost six times higher.9

The United States and the United Kingdom have a particular responsibility to address the needs of Iraqis forcibly displaced by violence precipitated in large part by their joint war effort, or who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime but have been unable to return because of the insecurity in Iraq. Yet the United States has resettled fewer than 1,000 Iraqi refugees since the beginning of the war and the United Kingdom has resettled fewer than 100.10

Lebanon not only hosts a substantial, and growing, number of Iraqi refugees, but also a large Palestinian refugee population. Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency number 394,532, or about 10 percent of Lebanon’s population.11 While this number probably includes several tens of thousands of Palestinians who have since left Lebanon, the actual number is nevertheless estimated at between 250,000 and 300,000.12 The Palestinian presence in Lebanon has contributed to the crises that have beset the country in recent decades. Ongoing political crisis and instability mean many Lebanese are wary of hosting another refugee population whose prospects of returning home in the short term are remote. The situation is further complicated by the perception of many Lebanese that the sectarian tensions that plague Iraqi society might feed into, and amplify, the sectarian tensions that are never far below the surface in Lebanon itself.

The vast majority of all Iraqi refugees in Lebanon live in Greater Beirut, with much smaller numbers in the Beka` valley and in towns and villages in southern and northern Lebanon. The majority of the Iraqis in Lebanon are Shi`a.13 Some portion of the Iraqi Shi`a in Lebanon fled Iraq prior to the American-led invasion in 2003. The Shi`a Iraqis in Lebanon mostly live in Beirut’s southern suburbs, which are overwhelmingly Shi`a. Sunnis and Christians each make up about half of the remaining Iraqi refugees in Lebanon.

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, Iraqi refugees gave a variety of reasons for choosing to seek refuge in Lebanon, as opposed to Syria, whose borders until October 1, 2007, 14 remained open to Iraqis and through which territory almost all Iraqi refugees in Lebanon have come.15 Many referred to difficult economic conditions in Syria as their main reason for having come to Lebanon. As one Iraqi man said, “There are no work opportunities in Syria, and even if you work, you get paid less than US$150, [per month], but you need more than $300 to live on. In Syria, how would I live with my wife and children?”16

Refugees pointed to the impossible choice they saw themselves facing: stay in Syria, where Iraqis need not fear arrest, but where there are very limited work opportunities, wages are low, and prices high; or go to Lebanon, where they risk arrest for being in the country illegally, but where it is easier to earn enough money to survive. “In Lebanon, you can earn enough to live. In Syria there are no work opportunities. But the security situation in Lebanon is very critical. The refugee certificate is not recognized.”17

Other refugees said that they did not feel safe in Syria: “I chose Lebanon because it is more safe. I didn’t want to stay in Syria, because those who threatened us in Iraq could also threaten us in Syria.”18 Others said that they had chosen to come to Lebanon because they had heard that the UNHCR office in Beirut had shorter waiting times for registration than the UNHCR office in Damascus. One Iraqi man, who was arrested six days after arriving illegally in Lebanon and who had been in detention for seven months, said, “I came to Lebanon because I heard that the UN office works better here than in Syria.”19 Finally, Iraqi Christians, who make up less than 3 percent of the population in Iraq20 but around 20 percent of all Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, often cited the relatively secure position of the Christian community in Lebanon as one of their reasons for coming there.

While some of the problems highlighted in this report are unique to Lebanon, others exist in the same or similar forms in other countries in the region that host large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Earlier Human Rights Watch reports have highlighted the plight of Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Egypt, and the situation of Iraqi Palestinians in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria.21 This report similarly seeks to raise the profile of the Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. Addressing the problems highlighted in this report is the shared responsibility of Lebanon, other countries in the region, and the international community at large.

1 UNHCR Spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis, “Iraq: Situation Continues to Worsen, Local Governorates Overwhelmed,” UNHCR Briefing Notes, June 5, 2007, (accessed June 21, 2007). Iraq has a total population of about 27.5 million people, which means that more than one in seven Iraqis is currently displaced. UNHCR, “Iraq Situation Response – Update on Revised Activities under the January 2007 Supplementary Appeal,” July 2007, (accessed June 21, 2007), p. 1.

2 UNHCR Spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis, “Iraq: Situation Continues to Worsen, Local Governorates Overwhelmed,” UNHCR Briefing Notes, June 5, 2007, (accessed June 21, 2007).

3 In 2002, the Iraqi expatriate community worldwide was estimated to number some 4 million people, with more than half a million residing in neighboring states. UNHCR, “Humanitarian Needs of Persons Displaced within Iraq and across the Country’s Borders: An International Response,” HCR/ICI/2007/2, March 30, 2007, (accessed June 21, 2007), para. 6.

4 The number of asylum claims lodged by Iraqi asylum seekers in 36 industrialized countries went up from 12,521 in 2005 to 22,150 in 2006, an increase of 77 percent. UNHCR notes that: “The increase was particularly significant in the last quarter of the year when 8,100 Iraqis applied for asylum in the 36 industrialized countries, reflecting the continuously deteriorating situation in the country.” UNHCR, “Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries, 2006,” March 23, 2007, (accessed June 22, 2007), p. 7. Compared to the third quarter of 2006, the number of Iraqi asylum seekers increased by 44 percent in the fourth quarter of 2006. Ibid., p. 9.

5 UNHCR, “Iraq Situation Response – Update on Revised Activities under the January 2007 Supplementary Appeal,” July 2007, (accessed June 21, 2007), p. 1.

6 UNHCR, “Supplementary Appeal Iraq Situation Response,” January 2007, (accessed June 21, 2007), p. 3.

7 Email from UNHCR-Beirut to Human Rights Watch, November 15, 2007. Because most Iraqi refugees in Lebanon are in the country illegally, there are no precise statistics for the total number of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. UNHCR’s “Iraq Situation Response” of July 2007 estimated the number of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon to be between 20,000-40,000. UNHCR, “Iraq Situation Response – Update on Revised Activities under the January 2007 Supplementary Appeal,” July 2007, (accessed June 21, 2007), p. 4. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, General Security estimated that there are 100,000 Iraqi nationals in Lebanon in total, legal and illegal. According to statistics provided by General Security, Lebanon issued 60,410 visas to Iraqi nationals in 2006, while on May 27, 2007, the number for 2007 stood at 21,998. General Security estimates that no more than 20 percent of those Iraqis who enter Lebanon leave the country again.Letter from Brigadier-General Siham Harake, Head of the Nationality, Passports, and Foreigners Bureau, on behalf of General Wafiq Jazini, General Director of Public Security, to Human Rights Watch, June 30, 2007.

8 UNHCR, “Statistics on Displaced Iraqis around the World,” April 2007, (accessed June 22, 2007).

9 Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook 2007, updated June 19, 2007, (accessed June 22, 2007).

10 U.S. State Department admissions from October 2002 through July 2007 total 888;|LFY1Pu2uho%3d&tabid=211&mid=630; and email from UNHCR-UK to Human Rights Watch, August 17, 2007. These figures do not include Iraqis who arrive in either country spontaneously and seek asylum upon arrival.

11 United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), (accessed June 22, 2007).

12 U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2006: Lebanon,” March 6, 2007, (accessed June 22, 2007).

13 No accurate statistics are available, but UNHCR estimates that 50-60 percent of all Iraqis in Lebanon are Shi`a. Human Rights Watch interview with Stephane Jaquemet, UNHCR Representative in Lebanon, Beirut, March 23, 2007.

14 On October 1, 2007, Syrian officials began a strict visa regime, limiting entry to Iraqis with visas for commercial, transport, scientific, and education purposes. UNHCR Briefing Notes, October 5, 2007, (accessed October 5, 2007).

15 Apart from the small number of Iraqis who manage to obtain a visa for Lebanon, most Iraqi refugees are smuggled into Lebanon by people smugglers. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, refugees said that in recent months these smugglers have adopted new methods to extort more money from refugees wishing to go to Lebanon. In essence, once the smugglers have escorted refugees to the remote and mountainous border area between Syria and Lebanon, they take the refugees hostage. The smugglers then only agree to release the refugees in return for large sums of money, as much as $6,000 per Iraqi family. If the refugees do not have enough money to pay off the smugglers, the smugglers release the adult men with instructions to raise money from the Iraqi refugee community in Lebanon in order to secure the release of their wives and children. Human Rights Watch interview with Iraqi man (No. 23), Greater Beirut (Dahieh), April 17, 2007; Human Rights Watch interview with Iraqi man (No. 26), Greater Beirut (Dahieh), April 17, 2007; and Human Rights Watch interview with Iraqi man (No. 36), Greater Beirut (Dahieh), April 20, 2007.

16 Human Rights Watch interview with Iraqi man (No. 65), Greater Beirut (Za`taria), April 28, 2007.

17 Human Rights Watch interview with Iraqi man (No. 23), Greater Beirut (Dahieh), April 17, 2007.

18 Human Rights Watch interview with Iraqi woman (No. 13), Greater Beirut (Za`taria), March 31, 2007.

19 Human Rights Watch interview with Iraqi man (No. 41), Roumieh Prison, Greater Beirut, April 23, 2007.

20 Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook 2007, updated June 19, 2007, (accessed August 12, 2007).

21 See for example Human Rights Watch, Iraq – From a Flood to a Trickle: Neighboring States Stop Iraqis Fleeing War and Persecution, April 2007, (accessed June 22, 2007); The Silent Treatment: Fleeing Iraq, Surviving in Jordan, Volume 18, No. 10(E), November 2006, (accessed June 22, 2007); Nowhere to Flee: The Perilous Situation of Palestinians in Iraq, Volume 18, No. 4(E), September 2006, (accessed June 22, 2007). For more Human Rights Watch publications on the Iraqi refugee crisis, see generally