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Going Nowhere Fast: Iraqi Refugees (Part 2/2)

This article reflects Nicholas A. Heras' research on the Iraqi refugee population in the Middle East. It is the product of research and interviews he conducted with Iraqi refugees, Lebanese, local and international NGO workers, and international organizations. The article's emphasis on Lebanon is a result of his fieldwork with Iraqi refugees in and around Beirut from 2009 to 2011. This is the final part.

Lebanon's Iraqi refugee population is smaller than Syria's and Jordan's, with approximately 40,000 Iraqis living in Lebanon as estimated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and local humanitarian organizations. Iraqis in Lebanon are concentrated in the eastern and southern suburbs of Beirut, with smaller populations in Tripoli, around Baalbek in eastern Lebanon in the Beqaa Valley, and in and around the southern cities of Saidon and Tyre. Although smaller than in Syria or Jordan, the Iraqi population in Lebanon is in no less precarious a situation. Many Iraqis in the country have overstayed their visas and depleted their savings, and suffer from economic hardship and fear of imprisonment or deportation back to Iraq. The psycho-social trauma that also impacts Iraqi refugees is overwhelming and worrying.

The Iraqi refugee population in Lebanon is represented by a diverse number of sectarian groups. According to the Danish Refugee Council, approximately 60% of the population of Iraqi refugees in the country is Shi'a Muslim, 20% is Sunni Muslim, and 20% Chaldean or Assyrian Christians. Iraqi refugees have generally adopted the sectarian divisions present in the country, choosing to reside in areas where they belong, or where they are the same general faith as the predominate sectarian community. Iraqis of different sectarian affiliations in Lebanon have not normally mingled or networked.

This is a result both of sectarian fears linked to the conflict in Iraq and due to the reality that many Iraqis are afraid of being detained while in transit outside of their immediate neighborhoods. Iraqis smuggled into Lebanon are often told by their smugglers where to live, and are deposited in what the smuggler deems to be the appropriate area: Christian Iraqis in Christian neighborhoods and Muslim Iraqis in Muslim neighborhoods on opposite sides of the city. As a result, this makes these Iraqi refugee populations in and around Beirut distinct and geographically separated. The Iraqi refugee population of Beirut and its environs expresses this sharp division. The population here consists of Chaldean and Assyrian Christian Iraqi families living in the eastern suburbs and generally young, single Shi'a Muslim men in the southern suburbs.

The areas where Iraqi refugees live are called hay sha'abi (popular neighborhoods), which are working and lower middle-class. These neighborhoods are particularly attractive to Iraqi refugees because they have relatively cheaper rent, and the cost of food and essential items is lower. Moreover, these areas are busier and more crowded and thus easier to blend into. Significantly, the neighborhoods are generally less likely to be the subject of the Lebanese General Security Organization's (GSO) attention, except in the most extreme circumstances such as civil strife or rampant criminality. The hay sha'abi also experience significant movements of people into and out of them.

Integrating into their surrounding environment is difficult, and there is an immediate distinction between Iraqis and Lebanese due to their different dialects of Arabic, appearance, and in the case of the Assyrian and Chaldean Christian Iraqis in the eastern suburbs of Beirut, entirely different languages spoken in the home. Iraqi children have difficulties in Lebanese schools because they are not used to the multi-lingual curriculum and are "different" from their classmates. Iraqis in Lebanon try to become "Lebanese," not only to blend in and protect themselves from the attention of the GSO but also to appear non-threatening to their Lebanese neighbors. Some young Iraqi men even take Lebanese wives, predominately in the southern suburbs of Beirut and in the Beqaa Valley. The disadvantage of these unions is that children of these families are not officially recognized as Lebanese citizens, as Lebanese citizenship is granted through patrilineal descent. They would have to return to Iraq to have citizenship, and until that point are essentially stateless.

Iraqis in Lebanon: The Law is Not on Their Side

The situation of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon is complicated under Lebanese law. Officially, most Iraqi refugees are classified as "tourists," for recreation, business, or medical visits, or are simply residing in the country illegally. Illegal Iraqi refugees have either entered the country legally on tourist visas, or were smuggled into Lebanon, through Syria. Exact figures are hard to come by, but it is estimated that the majority of Iraqis in Lebanon were smuggled into the country, often for expensive fees. Most Iraqis who have registered with the UNHCR are seeking resettlement in third-countries, especially the United States and nations in Western Europe. Although registering with the UNHCR is the only likely path to resettlement for Iraqis, many choose not to register out of fear that their registration as refugees with the UNHCR will prevent them from being resettled. This is a false impression according to the UN agency.

Lebanon does not have an official law to deal with refugees. The UNHCR, working with local and international NGOs, is generally the sole provider of services to Iraqi refugees. It is also the source of registration for refugee status for Iraqis in Lebanon. At present, no Lebanese government ministry is responsible for recording and administering the Iraqi refugee population in the country, except for the GSO, which has under Lebanese law arrested and detained Iraqi refugees with no or an expired visa. In the southern suburbs of Beirut, the majority of Iraqis are young men illegally smuggled into Lebanon from Syria, while in the eastern suburbs the majority of illegal Iraqis are families that came legally and then overstayed their visas. Iraqis who reside in Lebanon illegally go to great lengths to avoid arrest. If they move from their resident neighborhoods, they plan their movements meticulously, and learn what days and what roads there are Lebanese military, and thus Lebanese GSO, checkpoints.

The interaction between the GSO and the UNHCR, and its allied NGOs, has improved in the last few years. In an attempt to help Iraqi refugees feel more comfortable with the registration process to receive better services, the GSO has begun to provide selective amnesty to Iraqis who are in the country illegally and wish to stay. In order to apply for amnesty, Iraqi refugees must pay a fee and obtain a Lebanese sponsor, either a current or potential employer or a concerned person. Once received, the amnesty process requires registration with the UNHCR and a comprehensive background check of the individual refugee or refugee family. Unfortunately for the majority of Iraqi refugees, the cost of the application for amnesty, approximately $633, is prohibitive and finding willing Lebanese sponsors is extremely difficult.

The legal status of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon significantly weakens their relationship with the local population. Many Iraqi refugees report that they are abused by employers and landlords, who are aware of the refugees' limited status. Iraqi women that are employed in the underground economy also frequently report inappropriate sexual advances and abuse from their employers, who do not fear legal reprisals because of the Iraqis' weariness of attracting the attention of Lebanese authorities. Iraqis who remain in the country without a valid visa are classified as "illegal migrants," and are thus at the complete mercy of their neighbors, employers, and landlords to corroborate their stories and to protect them from being exposed to the GSO. Iraqis in the southern suburbs of Beirut are at a slight advantage to their peers in this regard, as they reside in areas that are under the exclusive security control of Hezbollah and away from the authority of the GSO.

Lebanon: A Transit Country of Frustration

Although the Iraqi population in Lebanon is composed of a diverse group of people, all Iraqis in the country are forced to battle similarly pervasive existential dilemmas. Many Iraqi refugees in Lebanon express feelings of desperation and insecurity. They have moved from unstable and potentially deadly situations in Iraq to living in poverty and the threat of detention and deportation in Lebanon. Many also express the simple desire to be able to provide for their families on a day-to-day basis. Unable to work for consistent periods of time, Iraqi refugees in Lebanon encounter the challenge of being unable to afford the relatively high cost of living in the country and find it problematic to acquire food, necessary medicines, and pay their rent. The general lack of employment and income and under-serviced living conditions creates severe existential and emotional difficulties for the Iraqi refugees.

Frequently, Iraqi refugees in Lebanon struggle to find reliable and well-paid jobs because they must compete with Syrian and south Asian guest workers, most of whom have valid work permits from their Lebanese employers and thus a legal right to stay in the country. In polyglot, tourist-economy based Lebanon where knowledge of English and French is often a requirement in the service industries of restaurants and hotels, Iraqi refugees are at a disadvantage because they often cannot speak even simple English or French. This precludes Iraqis from all but the most insecure and lowest-paying menial labor, such as in construction and domestic work, where they are still at a disadvantage because these jobs are most often given to guest workers with legal residency status.

Iraqis in remote areas of Lebanon, such as around Baalbek and in southern Lebanon, generally are better integrated into their surroundings and can find relatively plentiful work as itinerant agricultural laborers. This labor advantage for rural Iraqi refugees is eroding quickly, however, as greater numbers of Syrians fleeing from violence between the Bashar Al-Assad government and armed Syrian opposition groups enter Lebanon. Many of these Syrians are seeking temporary labor, and the agricultural sector is the most likely place for them to find this work. Already fierce competition at the lowest levels of the Lebanese market between guest workers and refugees in the country is likely to become even more intense.

No matter where in the country they are located, Iraqi refugees suffer from psycho-social trauma and are extremely vulnerable to lingering psychological issues. Many Iraqis in Lebanon suffer from depression and anxiety and display enduring trauma due to the events they witnessed in Iraq. An atmosphere of frustration, and sometimes irrevocable despair, lingers over many Iraqi refugees. Iraqis in Lebanon are left with the sense that they are not in a protected environment, but instead are lost and suffering in silence.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.