Setting the Captives Free: CRS Partner Helps Release Jailed Iraqi Refugees

They’ve been threatened with kidnapping, received anonymous envelopes containing a warning bullet and seen family members mutilated in their home country of Iraq. So they fled.

Now Iraqi refugees in neighboring Middle Eastern countries — an estimated two million people —are struggling to find pay rent, find jobs and get medical care.


Drawn by an Iraqi refugee girl in Lebanon, this picture shows the girl (in purple) below her father and older brother, who are outside a green “jail” in the top right corner. The jail represents the retention center in Beirut where illegal immigrants are housed. The Arabic words read: “Please Jesus, get my father and brother out of prison. Thanks for keeping them safe and sound for me. Amen.” Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

In Lebanon, Iraqis have faced another threat: arrest and imprisonment. Considered illegal immigrants, tens of thousands of undocumented Iraqi refugees were not allowed to work in Lebanon and were imprisoned if they overstayed their short visas. Hundreds of Iraqis have been detained in the holding cells of a retention center in Beirut — without light, fresh air or hope. Others are housed in a regular prison, sharing space with criminals.

But thanks to the efforts of the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, these Iraqis will soon be reunited with their loved ones and will be able to look for work in their new country. With support from Catholic Relief Services, other Catholic donors and the United Nations’ refugee agency, the migrant center has negotiated an amnesty with Lebanese authorities. By paying visa fees to regularize their status and working toward a job-sponsorship program, Caritas should be able to free approximately 300 Iraqis and keep others from being detained.

“This is a major and unprecedented step forward, contributing to alleviating the plight of Iraqi refugees living in dreadful conditions in Lebanon,” says Najla Chahda, director of the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center.

The news is a wish come true for young girls like Rana, an Iraqi staying in a Caritas refugee shelter near Beirut. Like many undocumented Iraqi men over 18, her father and older brother were sent to the retention center while she, her mother and her younger siblings were sent to the migrant shelter. In a drawing, Rana imagines the retention center as a green jail with the door open, and shows her father and brother standing outside it.

“Years before the issue of Iraqi refugees became front-page news, social workers at the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center were working with compassion and skill to help these families get on their feet once they reached Lebanon,” says Melinda Burrell, Country Representative for CRS Lebanon. “Catholic Relief Services is proud to support the Migrant Center’s commitment to helping those who are bearing the brunt of the chaos in Iraq.”

The amnesty will also mean that thousands of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon can come out of hiding. Fearing arrest, many of them have rarely left their bare, cramped apartments. Without jobs or a connection to the Lebanese people around them, and traumatized by what they lived through in their home country, Iraqi refugee families have fallen into poverty and despair.

Caritas will continue to cooperate with the Lebanese government to eliminate obstacles that keep Iraqis poor, like fees and difficulties in applying for residency permits. Since the permits require an employer to act as a sponsor, Caritas also plans to link prospective employers with Iraqis. Continuing its ongoing social work, Caritas will follow up with freed detainees, making sure they have the papers they need to avoid being arrested again.

In the coming months, families can look forward to joyful reunions. Prisoners should start being released on a rolling basis starting in late February 2008. Just as in Rana’s drawing, the door is open now.

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