Iraqis fleeing violence in their homeland are increasingly detained in Lebanon and jailed alongside “common criminals,” a U.S. refugee protection group said Monday.
The report by Washington-based Refugees International also outlined discrimination and other obstacles facing Iraqi refugees in Egypt and Syria.
The group recommended the United States do more to assist Iraqi refugees across the region and also upgrade the U.S. diplomatic presence in Syria, which has an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees.
The report — made available to The Associated Press in advance of its Wednesday release date — came as both Syria and the United States took steps to cope with the flow of Iraqis across the border.
On Saturday, Syria displayed new security measures at its border with Iraq. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said Syria will allow U.S. interviewers into the country to screen Iraqi refugees for possible admission to the United States. Syria had for months refused to issue visas to the interviewers amid deepening tensions with Washington.
Lebanon 'systematically arresting' Iraqis
The report, however, highlighted the plight of the estimated 50,000 Iraqis who have reached Lebanon.
It said authorities have been “systematically arresting and detaining those who are in Lebanon illegally” since May, when government troops battled al-Qaida-inspired militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in the country’s north.
“The government has taken to detaining Iraqis, placing them in jail with common criminals,” the report said.
Lebanese government did not immediately comment on the report. But security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media, said about half of the estimated 1,000 jailed illegal migrants were Iraqi. Most of them likely face deportation because of prison overcrowding, the officials said.
The Iraqis are picked up for overstaying their visas or for entering the country illegally, the report said.
Stephane Jaquemet, the regional representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Iraqis in Lebanon are not recognized by the government as refugees because there “is no mechanism in the law” for that status. He put the number of Iraqis currently in jail at about 580.
U.S. group working to help refugees
Jaquemet said the UNHCR has unsuccessfully tried to get Lebanese authorities to legalize the Iraqi refugees.
Michel Kassarji, head of the Lebanese Chaldean Church, which has a following in Iraq, put the number of Iraqis in Lebanon at about 80,000. Kassarji urged for international pressure on Lebanon to give the refugees temporary residence.
In Egypt, Iraqis are not granted refugee status and are barred from public schools and receiving public health care, the report said.
The UNCHR estimates 2 million Iraqis have fled their country, including about 750,000 to Jordan. The Iraqi Red Crescent says nearly 2.3 million Iraqis — the vast majority of them women and children — have fled their homes but remain inside the country’s borders.