UNHCR welcomes Lebanon's recognition of Iraqi refugees
BEIRUT, Lebanon, February 20 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has praised the Lebanese government for its decision to recognize thousands of Iraqi refugees who had been considered as illegal immigrants liable to detention.
From the beginning of this week, Lebanon's Directorate General of the General Security will give Iraqis who have entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas three months to regularize their status.
The decision will benefit thousands of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and will result in the release of hundreds from detention. As of October last year, 584 Iraqis were being held in detention in Lebanon due to their irregular status. Many had served their sentences but were still being held.
"The Lebanese decision is of particular significance given that it has been taken at a time when the country has been facing political turmoil and volatile security. This is a courageous decision," Stephane Jaquemet, UNHCR's representative in Lebanon, said in Beirut on Wednesday.
On Monday, High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said the Lebanese decision would create protection space in Lebanon for Iraqis who have fled threats, or generalized and sectarian violence in their country.
"This is a very important and positive development," he told journalists in the Jordanian capital, Amman, at the end of a weeklong visit to Jordan, Syria and Iraq, where he announced that UNHCR would increase its international presence on the ground.
The refugee agency will help those released from detention, along with their families, and will provide legal aid to Iraqis seeking to regularize their status. The regularization process will entail providing residence and work permits.
"UNHCR's priority will be to assist detainees upon release as, after several months of detention, many of them will be destitute. We will also help as many Iraqis as possible obtain work permits so that they can become ... self sufficient and lead a dignified life," said Jaquemet.
Of the estimated 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon, 77.5 percent are believed to have entered the country illegally, according to a survey conducted by the Danish Refugee Council late last year. UNHCR has registered 9,939 Iraqis and provides medical, educational and material assistance to the most vulnerable. Last year, the agency referred 1,462 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon for resettlement in third countries.
By Laure Chedrawi in Beirut, Lebanon
and Abeer Etefa in Cairo, Egypt