As Iraq continues to face conflict and challenging humanitarian conditions, millions of Iraqis have fled their homes to neighboring countries, among them Lebanon. Though there have been some returns to Iraq, the majority of Iraqi refugees’ homes have been occupied or destroyed. In addition, ongoing violence in Iraq, coupled with a lack of jobs and basic services, makes returning impossible. Iraqi refugees in Lebanon continue to live in limbo without access to basic services or work opportunities because they have not been granted legal status in Lebanon. Most are at risk of being fined, detained, and deported for illegal entry into the country.
To educate Iraqi refugees in Lebanon on accessible services and options available to them, International Medical Corps hosted a July 17 seminar, in collaboration with UNHCR and the Iraqi embassy, entitled “Issues of Returns, Resettlement, Services and Rights of Iraqi Refugees residing in Lebanon.” The seminar featured three UNHCR speakers and two speeches from Mr. Omar Barazangi, the Iraqi Ambassador in Lebanon. More than 70 people attended, two thirds of them social and community health workers serving Iraqi refugees.
As part of International Medical Corp’s regional Middle East initiative to help Iraqi refugees in the areas of mental health, psychosocial support and medical training, the seminar sought to inform international NGOs, local organizations, and social workers about the available services and options for Iraqi refugees either returning to Iraq or resettling outside of Lebanon. Far too frequently, Iraqis living abroad are making critical decisions about returning home, based on rumors and hearsay. In the opening remarks, Colin Lee, International Medical Corps Country Director in Lebanon, highlighted the importance of distributing accurate information regarding available services to Iraqi Refugees.
Both UNCHR and the Iraqi Ambassador outlined the precarious situation that Iraqis face in Lebanon. While UNHCR and the Iraqi Embassy provide services to Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, the main goal of both is to find a safe and legal place of residence for Iraqis whether in Iraq or a foreign country. Ambassador Barazangi detailed the Iraqi assistance plan for refugees returning to Iraq, which includes a plane ticket back to Baghdad, 1.5 million Iraqi Dinar (approximately 1,200 USD), and a piece of land to those who left before 2003. To date, the Embassy has assisted over 1,000 families that are registered with UNHCR. The ambassador also highlighted the many other services that are available at the embassy to Iraqis in Lebanon including assistance with passports, papers, ID cards, and legal aid. The ambassador also emphasized that the door to the Iraqi Embassy is always open to Iraqis in need.
In Lebanon almost every UNCHR Registered Refugee is submitted for resettlement, and since 2007, 5,347 Iraqis have been resettled into foreign countries. UNHCR urged NGOs and social workers to encourage Iraqis be honest in their testimony and disclose any military service to improve their chances of UNHCR resettling them outside of Lebanon. For Refugees returning to Iraq, UNHCR described their “Individual Assistance Programme to Voluntary Repatriation of Iraqi Refugees” available for refugees returning to Iraq. Through the program, returnees can receive a monetary return package as well as information on available UN services within their native country. A UNHCR representative from Iraq presented details on the Protection and Assistance Centers, as well as Return, Integration and Community Centers which offer returnees protection, monitoring, counseling, legal assistance, and monitoring of their reintegration into society.
Social workers were also able to ask UNHCR officers and the Iraqi Ambassador case-specific questions, get advice and schedule meetings to assist the refugees they represent. The seminar was not just a forum for sharing information on available services, but an opportunity for agency officers and community workers to collaborate to help Iraqis living in Lebanon.