When Mohammad, a Sudanese refugee, learned last week that his resettlement application had been cleared by UNHCR, he, along with his wife Gigi, a refugee from Somalia, were in the midst of staging a hunger strike to expedite the request.
His successful bid for resettlement was rare, as only about 1 percent of refugees worldwide are resettled to a third country.
Of that statistic, 20 percent are resettled from Lebanon alone, a relatively high number which is indicative of the Lebanese national law which does not recognize refugees and often results in their arbitrary detention as illegal migrants.
As the country is not a signatory of the 1951 U.N. Convention that defines the rights of refugees, in Lebanon the 1962 law concerning the entry and stay of foreigners remains the sole determinant of legal status.
Because of the legal inconsistencies, many refugees go about their clandestine lives, hoping that their resettlement bids are approved while vigilantly looking over their shoulders for checkpoints.
Mohammad’s 4-year-old daughter, Lamis, was cheerful in a bright yellow dress, treating the offices of the Lebanese Human Rights Center as her own playground, while her father numerated the occasions in which she had seen him handcuffed and detained for not possessing what the law deemed to be proper documentation.
“I am afraid of prison, I’ve been there four times,” he says.
“When we go to the grocery store to buy food, we are afraid of being stopped, we are afraid of checkpoints, because if they arrest me or my wife again, then who will take care of our daughter?”
Gigi, who sits silently by his side, was arrested in 2006 and held for six months “under the bridge,” a term those acquainted with the issue use to refer to General Security’s underground detention center in Adlieh. It was behind bars that Gigi first met her husband.
Mohammad, who fled Sudan in 1996, was last arrested in 2012, and charged with staying illegally. Life behind bars is not easy, he maintains. “There is no medicine, they put you underground, it’s overcrowded, you can’t see the sun,” he says of the Roumieh prison complex.
“They are detained for nothing in the end,” said Marie Daunay, president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights. “They are recognized as refugees, so the authorities know that they can’t return to their home country, but they are still put in jail without having done anything wrong.”
The experience of arbitrary detention coupled with unknown jail terms traumatizes many refugees. Because the threat of another arrest is always looming, some, like Iraqi refugee Mikhal Qiryaquz, prefer to stay ensconced indoors.
“We are seeking resettlement to another country, because we aren’t legal here,” says his father, Noori Qiryaquz, who escaped to Lebanon in 2008 from Iraq after he was threatened for working as a driver for Americans.
“We want to live in a country that can give us a future,” says the man, who now works illegally as a residential security guard. Mikhal was leading a normal life, until he was arrested last year. After he served his sentence, he was sent back to General Security’s detention center and remained there for two months.
It is typically at this point that aid workers can negotiate for their release. Often, they are released pending resettlement elsewhere, but many wind up back behind bars. Arbitrary detention among Iraqis in particular made headlines in 2010, when lawyer Nizar Saghieh represented eight of them.
“Our argument was that there is no legal text that allows General Security to keep anyone in jail without a judicial decision, so they should be considered as arbitrary arrests,” explained the lawyer.
Saghieh said a memorandum of understanding for registered refugees was issued in 2003 by the government, on the condition that they resettle elsewhere.
However, the period of amnesty was too short to accommodate the large number of refugees seeking relocation and the limited international quotas.
“This memorandum should be amended in order to reflect the realities of the situation,” said Saghieh of the agreement, which is no longer being implemented. Jawad al-Jabbouri was among the refugees Saghieh represented, and despite the success of the legal challenge, he was deported back to Iraq in October 2011.
He returned to Lebanon in December of that year, because his resettlement file was being administered in Beirut. “I’ve spent many years in jail, all for what?” asks the Iraqi, who fought during the Iraq-Iran war.
His current under-the-table job, as a waiter at a restaurant where he works 12-hour days, seven days a week for $300 a month contrasts sharply with his time as a soldier, he reminisced. LL20,000 is docked from his paycheck the days he doesn’t come to work.
And when tourism police are expected to run routine checks, he is instructed not to come in by his employers. Jabbouri spent three years in Roumieh, beginning in 2007, and an additional 10 months in Adlieh.
“Resettlement is based entirely on the criteria and quota set by receiving countries,” explained UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman. “The ultimate decision lies with the resettlement countries.”
Most Iraqi refugees escaping the 2003 war, like Haydar, who refused to provide his last name, came to Lebanon because they believed the prospects for resettlement were more promising. Haydar paid a smuggler $200 to take him across the border from Syria into Lebanon in 2006.
He chose to live in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, to avoid running into security personnel. However, he says, the few security personnel he does encounter turn a blind eye to his refugee papers, knowing full well that arresting him will lead nowhere.
“We’ve noticed, over the years, that General Security is more open to solutions. They understand better the situation of the refugees, but the law is against them too,” said Daunay.
“I don’t think the legal gap in the country will be solved soon,” she added, “I think now the onus is on other countries, which recognizes refugees, to open their doors.”
By Samya Kullab