Every refugee crisis creates tragic stories, but in the case of the Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, part of the tragedy lies in how absurd people’s situations become.
A visit to the Rumieh prison in Beirut confirmed this. Meeting with Iraqis who are imprisoned in Rumieh is heartbreaking, as their stories are tragic, and even more so in that they are all so common and similar. The Iraqis we met were either victims of or threatened by violence, and felt that their only choice was to leave Iraq, often on a moments notice.
Rumieh prison now houses over 400 Iraqis, nearly all of whom were arrested for being in the country illegally. In the prison, over a hundred prisoners share a room no bigger than 35 square meters. We met with 6 Iraqis of all faiths (sunni, shia, christian) who were arrested for being in Lebanon, and who are now sharing cells and space with common Lebanese criminals. One man, much older than the majority of the inmates, had owned a factory in Baghdad and was forced to leave because of his religion. He purchased what he thought was a legitimate visa from an Iraqi government official, only to be arrested in Beirut when trying to fly to Europe. The man was clearly humiliated by his plight, and the anguish on his face was apparent.
Other Iraqis shared similarly distressing stories. One person was arrested for trying to sneak back out of Lebanon to go back to Iraq. He left Iraq after receiving a death threat, but decided to go back to support his family, risking his life by returning to the center of the violence. He now sits in jail, unsure of his future, and unable to communicate with his loved ones. Two brothers we met with shared their separate stories - the one was tortured by Saddam, the other by the Mehdi army. One man was threatened because he used to help his father sell liquor, and said he would only return when he could drink in the streets. Another laughed when we asked if he wanted to go back to Iraq- "I’d go to Darfur before I go to Iraq" was his answer.
The risks Iraqis run in Lebanon are not unique. Our mission also included stops in Syria and Egypt where we met with Iraqi refugees whose stories encompassed the many dangers they have faced in Iraq and across the border.
Throughout the region, Iraqi refugees are living in continual fear in the very places they seek to find refuge.
Jake Kurzter and Kristele Younes have recently returned from a mission to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan assessing the humanitarian response to the Iraqi refugee crisis.
Labels: Iraqi Refugees
January 13, 2009