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News :: International
Ongoing deportation of Iraqi Refugees back to the war zone!
23 Sep 2004
Lebanese state deports 353 "illegal" Iraqi refugees (stay posted for Arabic translations and constant updates)

Beirut, 15 September 2004 -- Following several days of announcements in a Lebanese daily newspaper and on the official Lebanese TV station, the Lebanese General Security forces, in cooperation with the Iraqi government and the UNHCR, today started deporting 353 Iraqi refugees back to Iraq in what they described as a "voluntary repatriation".

We arrived at the scene at 8am. On arrival, we found that many Iraqis had already assembled at the announced gathering spot, a schoolyard owned by the Mabarrat Humanitarian Organization, affiliated with the Hezbollah political party. In the schoolyard, they were under the "protection" of the General Security forces. The refugees were sitting or standing in groups with their friends; some surrounded by their belongings in cardboard boxes, bags and suitcases, some with nothing at all. Refugees were still arriving as the General Security began organizing their departure in the dozen waiting buses. The buses had Iraqi license plates and the drivers were Iraqi. Practically everyone we saw were men, with only one or two women and one young girl.
Click on image for a larger version

from IMC Beirut - 15.09.2004 13:31
Officers and doctors from the UNHCR and IOM were also there to lend a hand in the operation, standing outside the area in which the refugees were gathered. When we first approached them, they were busy with lists of names. They were reluctant to speak to us, and referred us to a spokesperson from UNHCR who would soon arrive. As we moved off, the lieutenant from the General Security came up to shake hands with the officials from the cooperating organizations.

Under the watchful eyes of the soldiers, the refugees were hesitant to talk openly. The first man we interviewed, originally from Hella district in Baghdad, smiled and assured us that he was leaving voluntarily. He explained that he had signed papers from the General Security, the Iraqi embassy and the UNHCR saying that the return was voluntarily. We asked him whether he had signed the voluntary repatriation documents under pressure of settling his "illegal" status, and he answered yes. He told us that he had family and a place to return to, but that not everyone did. He knew that the situation in Iraq was insecure, and only hoped that they would arrive safely.

After we interviewed him, his wife quietly approached us, asking for our help to stay. Her husband later told us that he did not want to leave.

We then spoke to a man who spoke of his frustration with the treatment he was receiving. He told us that the refugees were scheduled to leave at 1pm, and would arrive in Baghdad at 5 or 6am. He said that they were sitting there like animals in the sun, with no washrooms, and said that he needed medication for his arm, which was in a cast. They had been promised medical care, but had not yet received any.

He and his friends had no belongings – they were leaving with nothing. He also described the harassment and difficulties he had faced in trying to live as an "illegal" in Lebanon. Most refugess live in Beirut's Southern suburb Hay El Soulom. He had signed papers, but was not sure what he had signed.

As we began a third interview, the lieutenant in charge asked the IMC Beirut crew to stop filming and leave the premises. He told us to film outside, noting that the "premises" were a schoolyard. The refugee had been telling us again that the Lebanese government had treated them well and the return was voluntary, but once the camera was off and the security forces left, his story changed. He agreed to come outside the area to speak with us.

As we walked outside the area together, we saw more people arriving in shared taxis with their cardboard boxes and suitcases, and the General Security and Iraqi officials with long lists of names.

Outside the area, the refugee said that they were being forced to return. The alternative would be arrest and imprisonment – unless you happened to have several thousand dollars to get legal papers. He said that four hundred "illegals" had been deported directly from jail last month. They had been imprisoned for different amounts of time, some as many as seven months. In jail, they had no rights, not even to make telephone calls, and were sometimes without food, cigarettes and deprived of sleep. If their friends tried to visit them at jail, they would also be arrested. He said that it was better to leave with dignity than to get arrested and be deported anyway.

As he left, another man came up to us, wanting to tell his story. He was from Kut, in southern Iraq. He walked with a limp, which he told us was due to torture during Saddam's regime. He was not leaving, but there to say goodbye to his friends, who were being forced to return. He said they had come to Lebanon via Syria and Jordan because the situation was so bad in Iraq, which is, after all, a war zone.

Since their arrival in Lebanon, they had suffered terrible conditions. They have been treated with complete lack of respect, with no protection for their rights, many working on a day-to-day basis as porters. Saying that he had often gone to bed without food, he described conditions in Lebanon as the worst of the three Arab countries in which they had tried to find refuge from the war. This is not the first time Lebanon has been described as the worst concerning refugees' human rights among the Arab countries; the same is said about the conditions of Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps.

Even though conditions as an illegal in Lebanon are miserable, some Iraqis who had already been deported have returned, choosing the suffering of an "illegal" in Lebanon over remaining in a war zone.

None of the refugees we spoke to were officially recognized as refugees by UNHCR. Signing the documents that they were returning voluntarily meant that they were not the responsibility of the UNHCR, and could be treated as illegal by Lebanon. Two out of three people asked whether they would have registered for voluntary repatriation if they had legal status in Lebanon, said they would not have. If they had legal status, they would have been free to find a job without constant fear of police persecution. All of the people interviewed told us that they did not know if anything had been prepared for them in Iraq, and that they feared they would be on their own in trying to re-integrate, though many had lived outside for years. One man told us despairingly that all that awaited him in Iraq was joining the fight against the Americans with Sadr's forces.

"No one is being forced to return," emphasized Shaden, the UNHCR spokesperson, whose t-shirt announced "Einstein was a refugee". The young woman explained that the refugees were not in fact refugees, but actually illegal immigrants. Thus, according to the law, they could be punished. She told us that each had received US$60 to cover their expenses during the trip.

UNHCR had decided not to get involved in the deportation which happened a month ago, because the situation in Iraq was not secure at that time. Then they were approached by the Lebanese General Security office and asked for their assistance with the current "voluntary repatriations", explained the spokeswoman.

When asked why UNHCR had changed its position and decided to get involved, even though the situation in Iraq was still very bad, Shaden replied that though they recognize that things are still dangerous, the UNHCR could not prevent these people from returning voluntarily. She said that UNHCR had explained the security situation in Iraq to each individual, and that they still wanted to return. UNHCR must respect their right to return, she said.

Later trying to reach the Iraqi embassy for comments, IMC Beirut was told that no staff were available. All were onsite, helping with the deportations. Our questions about a possible connection between the cooperation of the Iraqis in the deportations and the Iraqi funds frozen in Lebanese banks remain unanswered.

Amnesty International told us that a group of Iraqis had contacted them, and had refused to sign the "voluntary repatriation" papers. IMC is trying to contact this group- since their security situation is critical, it will take more time. A year ago, Amnesty protested the deportation of Iraqi refugees, which was covered by the media. They agreed that more deportations of Iraqis from Lebanon were to be expected in the future.

Wondering why unhcr agreed to and facilitated the deportation of refugees to a war zone, IMC beirut reviewd the guidelines and the handbook of the unhcr and found that the ageny violated several guidelines that regulate the voluntery repatriation process.
the handbook states that UNHCR should provide a proper monitring and reintegration mechanisim. it also states that whenever the safty of the returnees is not secured, repariation should not be implemented.

This work is in the public domain
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