Home > Press Articles > U.N. urges Lebanon to do more for non-Palestinian refugees- Daily Star

U.N. urges Lebanon to do more for non-Palestinian refugees- Daily Star

By Olivia Alabaster

BEIRUT: The government needs to do more for non-Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.There are around 10,000 refugees currently registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, mostly Iraqis. The agency also deals with stateless people, numbers of which are unknown due to the lack of a census since 1932, and with internally displaced people during emergencies, the last such instance being the summer war of 2006.

As there is no law or administrative framework in Lebanon relating to refugees, and the country is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the issue, the United Nations agency faces “significant challenges” in Lebanon, according to Ninette Kelly, regional representative for UNHCR, who spoke at a roundtable meeting in Beirut Wednesday.

Most refugees arrive in Lebanon with a visa, but many overstay their visa as they cannot return home for fear of persecution. As such, they are considered to be here illegally.

“They are constantly at risk of being arrested and detained for long periods of time and even be deported and that is a very real and pressing risk that many fear,” Kelly said.

At any one time, around 50-100 refugees are being held in detention in Lebanon, many of whom have completed their sentence and are being held in arbitrary detention, which contravenes international law. Dominique Tohme, head of the legal unit at UNHCR in Beirut said: “There is no justification to keep them in detention.”

One recognized refugee has been placed in arbitrary detention in Lebanon for three years, Kelly said, living a “harsh existence.”

In September 2010, the Cabinet passed a decree that reiterated that Lebanon is “not a country of temporary or permanent asylum.” However, it did allow for the issuance of a three-month residence permit for recognized refugees, extendable to up to a year while the UNHCR finds entry visas for a third country of resettlement.

The UNHCR says that this is not doing enough, and has drafted proposed changes, including non-penalization of refugees for illegal entry or stay and permits allowingthem to work in certain circumstances.

Former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud had agreed to discuss the proposals, and the agency is in continuing talks with the new government to “eliminate the risk of people being arrested and detained and even deported for the sole reason of having sought sanctuary in Lebanon.”

The agency is also worried that resettlement countries, mainly North America, Scandinavian countries, Australia and New Zealand will become less willing to cooperate with and donate to the agency if they see that the Lebanese government is unwilling to introduce amendments.

“We fear somewhat that that funding could be reduced if we’re not able to move more forward on a very minimalistic, but positive, arrangement with the government,” Kelly said.

“We are hopeful that the dialogue will continue because we are confident that it is a win-win for everyone,” Kelly added. The changes would, “work for the government of Lebanon so that they don’t have to fear the permanent residence of refugees here, but also, importantly, work for refugees.”

However Kelly praised the work of the Lebanese government in relation to Syrian refugees in north Lebanon who have fled a violent crackdown at home.

There are currently around 2,300 Syrian refugees in north Lebanon, although none is thought to remain in detention. “And for that I really have to applaud the Lebanese government,” Kelly said.

The vast majority of refugees are residing with host families, although one school is also serving as a temporary shelter.

Kelly said that the issue of shelter did have to be addressed. While some families are related to their guests, many are hosting complete strangers.

“It’s really inspirational to see so many people who have so little, that are still willing to open their homes to complete strangers.”

But as more and more time passes, she added, hosting refugee families can become a burden, so other shelter solutions were being sought.

Astrid Van Genderen Stort, protection and public information officer at UNHCR Beirut, said that tented camps were, however, a last resort. Tents, she said, give a sense of permanence that the agency tries to avoid.

Kelly also said there still exists a major misunderstanding relating to refugees in Lebanon, which also needs to be tackled.

“There are a lot of misconceptions regarding refugees in Lebanon, a lot of confusion exists between them and migrant workers.”

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