12/05/2007, 00.00
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For Iraqi refugees in Lebanon either prison or repatriation

Human Rights Watch slams Beirut for refusing to give Iraqi refugees a legal status, even if only temporarily. Without it Iraqi cannot get a job or send their children to school. Instead Lebanese authorities give Iraqis only two choices: prison or going back home where death stalks them. In Iraq government authorities warn they are not ready for a mass return influx of refugees.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanese authorities are refusing to give legal status, even temporary, to Iraqi refugees who are faced with two options: prison or going home, this according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) which just released a recent 66-page report titled Rot Here or Die There: Bleak Choices for Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon.

“Iraqi refugees in Lebanon live in constant fear of arrest,” said Bill Frelick, HRW refugee policy director. “Refugees who are arrested face the prospect of rotting in jail indefinitely unless they agree to return to Iraq and face the dangers there.” For many this means certain death.

All Iraqis who have fled south and central Iraq to seek refuge in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Middle East are generally recognised 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.

For HRW the lack of legal status in Lebanon means that Iraqi refugees cannot work; when they do they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers and landlords. Because they quickly run out of savings they cannot pay for their children’s education and need to send them to work to contribute to the family income.

According to the UNHCR about four million Iraqis have been displaced since 2003, half inside the country. In Lebanon there are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Iraqi refugees, plus 250,000 to 300,000 Palestinians.

In the last few weeks there has been some major movement towards going home, especially from Syria, with people encouraged by Iraqi government incentives.

The Red Crescent Society said that between September 15 and November 30 some 25,000 people went home. But for the United Nations they are largely motivated by desperation, not by any real confidence in an improved security situation.

At the same time the Iraqi government yesterday said it cannot handle refugee influx.

“In reality, the ministry cannot absorb a return on that (large) scale,” Iraqi Migration Minister Abdul-Samad Rahman told a news conference. “The rate at which Iraqis are returning is not proportionate to the level of stability and security.”

The UNHCR announced a US$ 11.4 million relief package for the most vulnerable families returning to Iraq in response to declining violence, but is asking donors for an additional US$ 200 million to deal with Iraqis who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

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