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Lebanese Recognition Of Iraqi Refugees Welcomed

Top UN Official Welcomes Lebanese Recognition Of Iraqi Refugees

New York, Feb 21 2008 - The United Nations refugee agency has praised Lebanon for agreeing to recognize thousands of Iraqi refugees who had previously been considered to be illegal immigrants requiring detention.

Lebanese authorities are giving Iraqis who either entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas a total of three months - as of the start of this week - to regularize their status, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported yesterday.

The agency said the decision will result in the release from detention of hundreds of Iraqis, many of whom had already served their sentences but were still being held.

Stephane Jaquemet, UNHCR's representative in Lebanon, described the Lebanese Government's decision as courageous.

"The Lebanese decision is of particular significance given that it has been taken at a time when the country has been facing political turmoil and volatile security," he said.

Speaking in Amman, Jordan, at the end of a week-long visit to Jordan, Syria and Iraq, High Commissioner António Guterres said the move would create "protection space" in Lebanon for Iraqis fleeing threats or the widespread sectarian violence in their homeland.

He also said the agency would assist those released from detention and their families, including by providing legal aid to help Iraqis regularize their status, a process that includes obtaining residence and work permits.

"UNHCR's priority will be to assist detainees upon release as, after several months of detention, many of them will be destitute," Mr. Guterres said. "We will also help as many Iraqis as possible obtain work permits so that they can become... self-sufficient and lead a dignified life."

More than three-quarters of the estimated 50,000 Iraqis living in Lebanon are believed to have entered the country illegally, according to a survey conducted late last year. UNHCR has so far formally registered 9,939 Iraqis and started providing medical, educational and material assistance to them, while another 1,462 have been resettled from Lebanon to third countries.

ENDS

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