UNHCR hails Lebanon move to legalize Iraqi refugees

BEIRUT – Lebanon has moved to regularize the status of Iraqi refugees residing illegally in the country, a decision the top U.N. refugee agency says will benefit thousands of Iraqis and help release hundreds in detention.

Starting this week, the government is giving foreigners, including Iraqis, who entered Lebanon illegally or who have stayed beyond their visa limit a three-month grace period to legalize their status.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says there are an estimated 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon, 77.5 percent of whom entered illegally, according to a survey by the Danish Refugee Council conducted in late 2007.

Lebanon, which is also home to some 400,000 Palestinian refugees, is not party to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, ratified by more than 140 nations.

UNHCR’s Lebanon representative Stephane Jaquemet told Reuters on Thursday the decision would also allow the release of some 300 Iraqis detained for staying in Lebanon illegally.

“The direct impact of the decision is that Iraqis in detention will be released. They’ll get a three-month visa on their Iraqi passport and they will have basically three months to try and identify an employer who can sponsor them,” he said.

“They (Iraqi refugees) are somehow tolerated but they don’t have legal status in the country. So our hope is this … will open the door for many of them to be regularized through a work permit.”

While the decision theoretically benefits all Iraqis, Jaquemet said he did not expect they would all find employers willing to secure them work permits, especially since illegal workers generally mean lower wages.

“Our estimate is that two-thirds of the adult (Iraqi refugee) population have a job, most of the time illegally. These two-thirds should be able to regularize their stay,” Jaquemet said. Most of them work in unskilled labor jobs.

“I think we will be left with a certain percentage of people who will not benefit from this. On paper it could benefit everybody, but practically how many of them will be able to find an employer who is ready to go the extra step to legalize them?”

Most of the refugees, 50 percent of whom are Shi’ite Muslims, are concentrated in Beirut and its suburbs. Many of them are single men while a significant minority are large families, Jaquemet said.

UNHCR’s priority will be to ensure the release of those in detention, some of whom have been in prison for months, Jaquemet said, in overcrowded conditions.

“We will assist them with the legal process, legalization fee … we’ll also give three-month assistance for those who do not have any other way of surviving, just to make sure that when they are released they are not on the streets.”

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