Speaker pleas for international support

By Samantha Randol
April 24, 2008

The situation of Iraq refugees has reached crisis proportions and is affecting the countries neighboring Iraq, according to the director of a refugee center in Lebanon. The situation was made clearer on Monday, April 7, when Najla Chahda, director of the Migrant and Refugee Center for Caritas-Lebanon, spoke to students and faculty. Caritas International is a Catholic relief organization.

Lebanon is one of the countries Iraqis flee to. It is a small country on the Mediterranean Sea that shares borders with Israel and Syria. Lebanon has been dealing with Palestinian refugees for years. There was a surge of Iraqi refugees in 1990 after the Gulf War and again in 2003 after Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Iraqi refugees face many problems in Lebanon, according to Chahda. While they are out of Iraq and the immediate danger, the situation in Lebanon is harsh.

Because Lebanon has not signed the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Lebanon does not recognize the Iraqis as refugees, but as illegals.

Their illegal status creates many problems for Iraqis seeking safety in Lebanon, Chahda said. Due to their illegal status, they cannot receive health care, obtain jobs, or go to school. Iraqis enter Lebanon by paying smugglers and traffickers large amounts of money to get across the borders into Lebanon, Chahda said.

While Lebanon does not formally recognize these refugees, officials there have taken steps to try to aid them. Three-month visas can be obtained from the Lebanese embassy in Iraq. For these three months, the Iraqi is legal in Lebanon and can work. The problem with these visas is that the Iraqis are overstaying their three-month time and then becoming illegal. Only 35 percent of Iraqi refugees enter the country legally by way of these visas and become illegal, and 65 percent enter the country illegally, Chahda said.

If Iraqis are caught, they can be put in jail. The charge for being caught as an illegal immigrant is one month in jail, a fine and deportation. However, there is a problem with this, Chahda said.

“Because the authorities cannot deport any person who refuses to leave the country by force, that means they are all staying in prison,” Chahda said.

The goal of Caritas-Lebanon is to help the Iraqi refugees with medical care, humanitarian assistance, education, vocational training and additional services. Outpatient services such as doctor visits and medication are provided, as well as inpatient care.

Food coupons are provided so families buy food, diapers, powdered milk for infants and children, and bedding. Humanitarian assistance is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Caritas also helps get children into school. If the families cannot afford the tuition and fees, Caritas will help, Chahda said.

Caritas is working for is the formalization of the legal status of Iraqi refugees.

“Even if we are a small country, we think that we should have solidarity with Iraq. We should find solutions for them. We can’t just keep them always arrested and living in fear of being arrested,” Chahda said.

“Alone, we cannot do all those things. We need the support of the international community. We need your support,” Chahda said.

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Samantha Randol

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