In Lebanon, Iraqi Refugees Cast Adrift

Suram Nostar is a 61-year-old Iraqi refugee who fled his country in 2010. He said that an extremist group threatened to kill him if he didn't shut down his venue in Baghdad which served alcoholic beverages. When he refused, the same group came back and put a gun to his head. 

"They told me that I had to leave Iraq and never return. I had no choice but to sell all my belongings and escape to Lebanon," Nostar told The Daily Star. "I have been stranded in this country now for almost six years." 

The power vacuum in a post-Saddam Iraq has consequently forced thousands of people to flee the country. In 2007, international agencies estimated that over 50,000 Iraqis had fled to Lebanon. Newcomers have also arrived as early as last year. And while many have been resettled elsewhere, aid assistance and resettlement spaces have withered for those who remain in Lebanon. 

Eliana Haddad, a senior social worker at the Caritas Lebanese Migrant Center, said that the eruption of the Syrian crisis had diverted much of the world's attention from the suffering of Iraqis in Lebanon. "The lack of funds and resources given to Iraqis in Lebanon from the international community has created tensions between them and Syrian refugees," she told The Daily Star. 

"We see tensions escalate mostly in schools where kids from both nationalities sometimes abuse each other." Job opportunities are equally scarce, as many Iraqis, like other refugees, must now compete in an oversaturated black market to earn an income. According to a Human Rights Watch report, this is largely because the government has implemented harsher work restrictions on Syrians, forcing those who are most desperate to accept far below the minimum wage. 

Hala Helou, adviser to Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, said the new visa and work regulations enforced on Syrians at the break of January 2015 didn't discriminate against them or hurt other refugees, but merely ensured that Syrians adhered to the same requirements as other foreigners in the country. 

"I don't know about any tensions between Syrian and Iraqi refugees," Helou told The Daily Star over the phone. "The real issue though isn't the new working conditions on Syrians, but the complete lack of international and donor support to refugees in Lebanon." The lack of support Iraqis receive is most apparent by the few resettlement slots available for them.

In 2009, the Council of the European Union resettled only 10,000 Iraqi refugees, a number that amounts to a fraction of the total refugee crisis caused from the American occupation. Resettlement quotas have become even more limited as only Canada and the United States still consider granting Iraqis asylum. 

However, their conditions for doing so are much more exclusive than the criteria outlined in the 1951 refugee convention -- the key legal document that defines who qualifies as a refugee. According to this protocol, a refugee is anyone unable to return to their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership to a certain social group or political opinion. 

Yet most countries that typically receive refugees have their own additional criteria when granting asylum. Nostar said that after he applied to the United States through UNHCR, only his three eldest children were admitted in 2013 -- all of whom were over the age of 18 by the time they were granted asylum. 

Though separated from his children he expected to join them in America soon. That was until he and the rest of his family were rejected for reasons he couldn't understand. After all, he and his children reported practically the very same story as to why they fled Iraq together. Dana Sleiman, a public information officer for UNHCR, said that each asylum case for people over the age of 18 is determined on an individual basis. 

And while their agency only adhered to the 1951 convention, they have to consider the criteria from refugee-receiving countries to accelerate the resettlement process as fast as they can. "Even if asylum claimants are part of the same family that doesn't mean they always have the same story," Sleiman told The Daily Star over the phone. "But it's true that some countries have very nuanced criteria for accepting refugees." 

When the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011, many Iraqis there fled to Lebanon to escape another harrowing war. And though they've been uprooted for a second time, they too have very little recourse to live a dignified life in Lebanon. The fact that most Iraqis, like Syrian refugees, are unable to fulfill practically impossible visa renewal requirements doesn't help. 

Instead, it only leaves them more vulnerable to exploitation and imprisonment. This is an issue that HRW raised in their report stating that "these residency regulations are making life impossible for refugees in Lebanon and are pushing them underground." "The last thing Lebanon needs is a large, undocumented community living at the margins of society, at heightened risk of abuse," said Nadim Houry, HRW's deputy Middle East director. 

For Nostar, however, that's the last issue he's worried about. And while he struggles to survive in Lebanon, he insists that he won't rely on a human smuggler to leave the country. Brushing his moustache with his wrinkled hands, he continues to wait aimlessly until he can see his children again.

"I entered Lebanon officially and I will leave Lebanon officially," Nostar said. "But right now we feel abandoned by the world. Why did America take our children and leave the rest of us behind?"
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