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UN refugee official asks Lebanon to continue protecting Iraqi refugees

7 September 2007 A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official today asked Lebanon to continue protecting the 40,000 Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers who have fled their country.

Following a three-day visit to neighboring Syria, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller is in Lebanon to meet with authorities to raise the agency’s concern about the detention – especially prolonged and indefinite detention – of refugees and asylum seekers.

Ms. Feller has expressed appreciation for Lebanon’s flexible and humanitarian approach towards Iraqi refugees, in spite of the complexity of the Lebanese situation and in light of the country’s security concerns. She asked the Government to find a balance between Lebanon’s security needs and the refugees’ humanitarian concerns.

The Commissioner visited Roumieh Prison, the largest in the country, in which 400 people of concern to UNHCR, mostly Iraqis, are being detained mainly for illegal entry or stay. She met with Iraqis in their cells, where she witnessed their conditions first-hand and heard of their plights in fleeing their country.

“Of particular concern is the fact that many refugees suffer prolonged detention periods, even beyond the normal expiry of their sentence, with no prospect of release in sight unless they agree to return to Iraq,” UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva.

Of the countries in the region, Lebanon has the largest number of detained refugees and asylum seekers, he added. Only 7,878 of the estimated 40,000 Iraqis in the country have registered with UNHCR, although numbers have risen in recent months.

In Syria, the Commissioner met with Syrian authorities, UNCHR’s partners on the ground and Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. At Al Tanf camp, situated in the no-man’s land between Iraq and Syria which shelters 350 Palestinian refugees from Iraq stranded there since last April, refugees appealed for a solution to their plight. They told Ms. Feller that life in the camps is no longer sustainable and that they deserve to be treated like human beings.

Yesterday, Ms. Feller stopped at Bint Jbeil, a village in Lebanon’s south which was severely damaged during last summer’s Israel-Hizbollah war, and she noted that the humanitarian consequences of the conflict were still very visible.

While in Bint Jbeil, she saw the progress made in implementing a UNHCR-run and European Commission-funded recovery project which aims to assist vulnerable displaced Lebanese and returnees.

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro last night paid tribute to the work of UN peacekeepers serving with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

“The men and women of UNIFIL illustrate what is most noble about United Nations peacekeeping,” she said last night at the opening of an exhibition on the mission. “They come from every corner of the globe. They are united in their mission for peace. They display professionalism and courage under difficult and even dangerous circumstances.”

She noted how UNIFIL is crucial in supporting “Lebanon’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security, as well as stability in the wider region,” and also paid tribute to those who lost their lives in last year’s hostilities.

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