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Refugee purgatory

Iraqi Christian refugees languish in Lebanon

by Jeremy Arbid

Elyas Salameh needed extras. Back in 2010, while on set shooting a TV commercial in Beirut, Salameh needed people to fill one of the scenes being filmed that day. There was one small hiccup with the extras he found — a language barrier. They were Aramaic speakers — Assyrian Christians from Iraq.

“Lebanon is a transitory place for them,” says Salameh, explaining the layers of intertwining storylines in his new documentary — “Transit”. Iraq’s Christian refugees in Lebanon provide an exceptional case in point. It is this population — Assyrians — that has belatedly captured the world’s attention.

“We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands,” US President Barack Obama said in a statement released in September. In many ways, it could arguably be too late. While the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is the latest group to target Iraqi Christians, the community has been persecuted for over a decade.

[pullquote]“Iraqi refugees speak of severe psychological problems including anxiety and suicidal ideation and attempts”[/pullquote]

Around the time the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, Salameh explains, the Iraqi people — especially Christians — began fleeing the country and coming to Lebanon to seek a safe haven. Iraqis languish in transit awaiting resettlement and they — like other refugee populations — struggle to survive. The film documents their daily struggle for food and clean water, access to healthcare and shelter, all the while hoping for the chance to resettle in a third country.

UNHCR determines resettlement on a case-by-case basis. Resettling to a third country is a lengthy process and difficult to achieve, given financial constraints and a whole host of other variables. According to a US State Department fact sheet, “Less than one percent of refugees worldwide are ever resettled in a third country.”

A policy memo introducing a forthcoming study on Iraqi refugees’ status in Lebanon by Jihad Makhoul at the American University of Beirut notes that “their illegal status in Lebanon requires them to stay mostly hidden, and makes them vulnerable to exploitation with no recourse … Iraqi refugees speak of severe psychological problems including anxiety and suicidal ideation and attempts. They exhibit hopelessness, and report sleeping problems, decreased appetite, and continuous crying.”

Refugee status in Lebanon

It is an existential struggle, as Salameh puts it, because, “It is not only a Christian identity; if they left Iraq, Christianity will remain one of the biggest religions in the world, but Mesopotamian identity and linguistic identity will disappear.”

In Lebanon, Iraqi refugees have been cast into the shadows. Human Rights Watch, a global organization dedicated to advancing human rights, published a report in 2007 recommending the ratification of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and for donor countries to “respond quickly and generously to UNHCR referrals of Iraqi refugees for resettlement.”

Lebanon still is not a signatory to this convention, leaving a hodgepodge of local laws as the determinant of legal status for refugees. The convention would provide refugees the right to work and would permit refugees to work in specialized professions given they had the proper qualifications and credentials. It would also provide the right to housing, education, public relief and assistance.

Refugees treated differently

[pullquote]In “Transit”, Salameh has intertwined their struggle into the larger picture of refugee policy and humanitarian aid distribution[/pullquote]

Syrians, thanks to the 1993 bilateral agreement between Lebanon and Syria for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination, receive greater leniency in freedom of stay, work, and employment in Lebanon. But still roughly only 30 percent of Syrian refugees can find work according to a 2013 International Labor Organization report. Iraqis do not even have access to this benefit. This is due, in part, to obvious gaps in the legal framework concerning refugee populations; the way the Lebanese government has structured its relationship with the UNHCR in regards to the Iraqis, and Lebanon not being a signatory to the convention.

There are indeed financial impediments that Lebanon alone is not capable of overcoming; but for even the most basic needs of food security, access to medical care and housing protection, the country is not willing to help. When Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil visited Iraq’s Christian regions in August he acknowledged the suffering of that country’s refugees in Lebanon, telling media outlets that yes, the Lebanese government supports Christian Iraqis, but that they must remain in their country: “The Lebanese government and people are all involved in supporting Christians,” Bassil said. “Not to welcome you on our land but to help you remain on yours.” 

In other words, they’re on their own.

The rapid decline of Mesopotamian culture, the exodus of its people and personal struggles for daily survival form the characteristics of Iraqi Christian refugees in Lebanon. In “Transit,” Salameh has intertwined their struggle into the larger picture of refugee policy and humanitarian aid distribution. This is their story.



Read our interview with Elyas Salameh where he discusses his documentary “Transit”.

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Jeremy Arbid

Jeremy is Executive's former economics and policy editor.

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