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A lost generation : Iraqi refugee children in Lebanon

Denied basic human rights, refugee children are growing up in an environment of injustice, poverty, lack of education and carrying great psychological burdens. On World Refugee Day 2008, MENASSAT's Simba Russeau takes a look at the children of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon.

Millions of refugee children around the world suffer from and witness some of the worst forms of violence committed either against them or the people they love during war.

Eventually it becomes a way of life.

Ali, 14, came to Lebanon two years ago with his parents and five brothers after fleeing Baghdad after their lives were threatened.

"The conditions were very bad," says Ali. "The crime. They would slaughter people in front of our eyes."

"If you were Shia and wandered into a Sunni neighborhood then they would kill you. And if you were Sunni in a Shia neighborhood then you would be killed," adds Ali.

Ali told MENASSAT that his family decided to leave Baghdad despite the fact that they had no car to get to the border.

The trip was an arduous one having to make a good portion of the journey by foot until a car was willing to pick them up and travel to the Syrian border. Eventually, they made it to Syria and beyond – entering Lebanon illegally via taxi.

In a 19-page report titled, "Trapped! The Disappearing hopes of Iraqi Refugee Children," the aid organization World Vision warned of a lost generation of Iraqi youth in 2007.

World Vision has released two reports highlighting the plight of Iraqi youth in Jordan and based on interviews with children the organization estimates that out of 10 million refugees worldwide, up to five million of these refugees are children.

"To preserve the young generation growing up today, we need to shield children from violence, enhance humanitarian access and provide more resources targeted to children's specific needs," World Vision says.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 50,000 Iraqis are fleeing across the border each month. Estimates put the number of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon at more than two million.

As many as half, of the estimated 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon are children.

Catching up

Residing in a mainly Shia suburb of Beirut, Ali is one the few Iraqi children with access to education.

"I am learning to read, write and how to use the computer here in Lebanon," says Ali. "We can go outside and play in Lebanon. In Iraq we couldn't. I would rather go back to Iraq because here the kids pick on us because of our refugee status."

Access is limited in Lebanon's overcrowded public schools and private schools are too expensive for most refugees. Those already enrolled in schools face the risk of dropout due to differences in curriculum.

"English is by far the most difficult subject for my children in school. By the time we came to Lebanon, before the war in 2001, my children had been out of school for nearly two years," says Fatima, a mother of five from Basra.

"Transport is so expensive here. It’s nearly US$50 per month," she said. "I can't afford that. I would rather not eat or drink if it means my children could go to school. Not going to school is like being put back in time."

A recent survey by the Danish Refugee Council found that only 40 pct. of Iraqi children living in Lebanon have pursued studies after elementary school. More than half of the 560 households interviewed did not send their children to school.

"They are unable to be put inside of a structured learning environment at the moment," says Robert Beer, Education Project Coordinator for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Lebanon. "What these children need is an intensive program 5 or 6 days a week."

The Norwegian Refugee Council opened an Education Resource Center to support the Iraqi refugee community in providing intensive learning to Iraqi children. And one element of the assessment is providing mental health services and treatment.

"What we do is we academically test children through the center," says Beer. "So they come in for a half a day's academic and behavioral assessment. And then we create an individual file on each child and then the idea is that we then tailor an academic program to filling in the gaps in their education so that they are enabled to perform at a mainstream Lebanese school."


"Iraqi children have faced problems because of the Iraqi violence," says Charles Nasrallah, Director of Insan Association in Lebanon. "Here in Lebanon they are also facing problems of not being welcomed."

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq, more than 12 pct. of the refugees that have fled to Lebanon say they were kidnapped, threatened or experienced traumatic events, according to the Danish Refugee Council.

Sitting in the courtyard of her school day Hanin, 14, has already had a traumatic life. Hanin fled Baghdad with her mother and brother after witnessing the death of her father.

"I'm not happy nor sad," says Hanin. "They poured gasoline on my father and set him on fire."

Grace period

Life is anything but stable for Iraqis residing in Lebanon. Many live in hiding for fear of being discovered by the Lebanese authorities.

"I was afraid for my brother," says Hanin. "He was detained in prison because he didn’t have the legal papers to stay in Lebanon."

Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released last December, "Rot Here or Die There: Bleak Choices for Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon," Lebanon has the largest number of refugees and asylum seekers in detention in the region.

The Danish Refugee Council found estimates that nearly 77 pct. of the roughly 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon entered the country illegally. Unlike Jordan and Syria, which host the majority of Iraqi refugees, Lebanon has a policy of detaining Iraqis who are in the country illegally.

Hope came on February 17th of this year when the Lebanese government announced plans to regularize the status of illegal Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. For a period of three-months Iraqis were given a grace period to legalize their status by locating an employer to sponsor their prolonged stay in the country.

Caritas Lebanon was successful in securing the release of 177 Iraqis who had been detained and the UNHCR was able to get them another employment extension to search for a Lebanese sponsor.

UNHCR and Caritas paid the $633 regulations fee to the government to pay for their release. According to Caritas many Iraqis found it difficult to get Lebanese interested because they don't know anyone.

Marseille,07 04 2008
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