Lebanon Braces for Flood of Iraqi Refugees

Lebanon could be the next place Iraqis turn for refuge. They officially number 50,000 in the country, but a new report from Human Rights Watch puts the number at twice that figure. In response, Lebanon's security services have begun a crackdown.

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Of the more than two million Iraqis who have fled the violence in their country, more than half went to Iraq's western neighbor, Syria. But the influx of so many people there has made jobs in the underground economy hard to come by. So more and more refugees are heading farther west into Lebanon.

Between 40,000 and 100,000 Iraqis are now there. Lebanon has had a tolerant attitude toward them but the country has its own problems. And Iraqis are beginning to get a cool reception there too.

NPR's Deborah Amos sent this report from Beirut.

(Soundbite of people praying)

DEBORAH AMOS: In the hills above the Lebanese capital, the pews of this Caldian Christian Church are filled with Iraqis. Some have just arrived from Baghdad. The sermon addresses the fears of these unsettled worshippers.

Unidentified Man: (Arabic spoken)

AMOS: The Lebanese priest asks, where are the civilized countries in the crisis in Iraq? The West does not care about you, he thunders. They treat your lives worse than animals. To them, your lives are worth nothing.

(Soundbite of chanting)

AMOS: Lebanon has taken in more Iraqis running from violence than any western country. But life is getting harder for the new arrivals.

FARAZ(ph): I'm afraid from killings.

AMOS: The killing is why Faraz and his wife Amal(ph) left Iraq. They are middle-aged, dressed for church, but like most Iraqis here, whatever sayings they have will be gone soon.

AMAL: (Through translator) We just arrived here. We don't have work. We don't know what's happening here.

FARAZ: We need work to continue our life.

AMOS: But for these refugees, working in Lebanon is illegal.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Woman: Hello.

AMOS: The calls are from Iraqis. Semira Trad(ph) runs a non-governmental organization that provides free legal aid for refugees. They are often arrested because they'd entered the country illegally says Trad.

Ms. SEMIRA TRAD (Volunteer): Most of them they come illegally. Smuggled through Syria.

AMOS: Which is why Lebanese officials are unsure of how many Iraqis are in the country. The prize to be smuggled from Syria to Lebanon is negotiable, says Trad, from $75 to $150 per person.

Ms. TRAD: Smuggling away - it varies. It varies between who are the smugglers. How important they are. How - the security they have. And it depends on the occasion.

AMOS: And Trad predicts prices could rise soon because of neighboring Syria's new policy. For the first time, requiring visas for Iraqis, which effectively closes the Syrian border to them.

Ms. TRAD: The business of smuggling throughout from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to everywhere will boom.

Unidentified Man: (Arabic spoken)

AMOS: In this neighborhood, in the Syrian capital Damascus, there's already talk among Iraqis here that Lebanon maybe the place to go. Aflam Aljabori(ph) says trafficking networks were in placed in the 1990s, smuggling oil out of Iraq when the country was under United Nations' sanctions. Now, the roots are for human beings.

Ms. AFLAM ALJABORI (Resident, Damascus): They can pick u up from Baghdad through Syria, reach Lebanon without entering any city, without seeing any (unintelligible). It's the huge networks of smugglers. It's a mafia.

AMOS: The number of Iraqis in Lebanon is reflected in the rising numbers in jail. Semira Trad tracks Iraqi detainees.

Ms. TRAD: And by the end of August, there were around 500.

AMOS: More than half of those prisoners have returned to Iraq says Trad. Lebanon offers Iraqi detainees arrested without legal papers, the option to go home or stay in jail. Says Trad, that choice is hardly voluntary.

Ms. TRAD: No, we don't think so because here it is a situation where people are in detention and they're kept in detention after the expiree of the sentence for a long period. This is a cohesive measure because there is no other way out.

AMOS: A United Nations representative was in Lebanon last week to urge better protection for Iraqis. Jordan and Syria have already been overwhelmed by more than two million Iraqi refugees.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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