For Iraqi Refugees A Haven Becomes a Dilemma
BEIRUT, Lebanon - When the Lebanese police caught him in a routine sweep earlier this year, Jaffar Sadiq al-Lami, an illegal Iraqi immigrant, figured he would spend a month or two in jail and be released with a warning, like the previous two times he had been arrested.
But Mr. Lami, 50, found himself facing a stark choice that is increasingly being presented to Iraqi refugees here under a new policy adopted by Lebanese authorities: stay in jail indefinitely, or go back to Iraq.
After seven months in jail, he could not stand the conditions in captivity any longer, his family said. Last week, he flew to Baghdad, the capital of a war-torn country he had not been to in a decade.
"He didn't do anything wrong," said his wife, Nidhal Jassem, 46, who keeps her five sons at home in a damp, third-floor walk-up with erratic electricity, for fear that they will end up deported like their father.
Hundreds of Iraqi refugees have been caught in the dragnet of heightened security in Lebanon after a showdown between an international jihadist group and the Lebanese security forces over the summer. The military and the police have increased the number of checkpoints across the country, arresting Iraqis who are here without legal residency papers.
United Nations refugee officials estimate that Lebanon has about 50,000 Iraqis.
"The choice they face is to rot here in jail or go to Iraq and face death," said Nadim Houry, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, which is releasing a report on Wednesday about Lebanon's new policy.
According to Human Rights Watch, 300 Iraqi refugees were deported in 2006, and 150 more in the first half of 2007. But in recent months, the number of Iraqis in detention has quadrupled to about 600, Mr. Houry said, all of them held without charge indefinitely unless they agree to leave Lebanon for Iraq. Lebanese officials say they offer Iraqi refugees the same opportunity as other foreigners to apply for residency permits if they meet the legal requirements.
Around the region, governments are pushing Iraqi refugees to go home. Syria, home to an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, closed its border last month. Jordan, home to about 750,000 Iraqis, has denied residency status to refugees and has been rounding them up and deporting them for a year.
But Lebanon had taken a more hands-off approach, occasionally arresting illegal immigrants but quickly releasing them.
That permissiveness evaporated over the last year, Iraqis say, because of political tension in Lebanon and anger at foreigners accused of fomenting terrorist activity.
"Even my Lebanese friends sometimes joke that we are traitors," said Hussein Husseini, 28, an occasionally employed Iraqi Shiite from Baghdad who has sneaked back into Lebanon after being twice arrested and deported.
Until Mr. Lami was deported, his wife visited him weekly at the Roumieh prison near Beirut. The family's eldest son earns enough at a butcher shop to pay the rent in a crumbling concrete flat in an area called the Ladder District because of its grid of narrow streets that barely afford passage to a single car.
"If we had enough money to pay the fees, my father could come back and residency permit tomorrow," said his son Mahdi, 15, who spends his days at home because his family cannot afford his school fees and because he fears arrest. "It's not fair."
Lebanon's government is especially reluctant to accept refugees; about 10 percent of the country's population consists of Palestinian refugees. Many here blame the presence of Palestinian factions in the refugee camps for the civil war that began in 1975 and the Israeli invasion in 1982.
The new deportation policy, according to the human rights group, violates a basic principle of international law that prohibits sending refugees back to countries where their lives could be in danger. The Human Rights Watch report also holds the United States and other Western countries responsible for not doing more to resettle Iraqi refugees.
Mr. Houry also said beleaguered officials in Iraq were manipulating refugee numbers, encouraging returns to Iraq so they could claim that security had improved.
"Both the United States and the Iraqis are keen to show today that Iraq is back in business," he said.
© 2007 The New York Times