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Reality for Migrant Workers Tastes Bitter in Lebanese Prisons

Simba Russeau

BEIRUT, Mar 17 2011 (IPS) - Connections and money seem to be the only way many migrant workers, refugees and Arab nationals escape prolonged detentions in Lebanon while the majority rarely, if ever, see justice.

Few have access to institutional support from their embassies. Mixed with criminals and murderers, most languish in prisons for months and even years before their cases are brought before a judge.

Their crime is not having a passport, that was either confiscated when they arrived in Lebanon as migrant workers or which they never owned in the first place – or even a case of mistaken identity.

“After escaping threats to my life for being transgender in Algeria, I was confronted with the same reality a year after arriving in Lebanon,” says Randa to IPS.

“While trying to renew my visa I was told that my male name was the same as a Lebanese who had escaped military service and this was the reason behind my eventual detention but it did occur to me that the Algerian embassy might also be involved.”

Although Randa was told that she would be detained for twenty-four hours pending investigation she remained behind bars for several months. She was clad in men’s clothes and placed in a solitary cell in the men’s section, apparently with the objective of convincing her to be voluntarily deported.

“They kept me in the prison for over sixty days because they were trying to figure out a way to deport me. As a form of intimidation they placed a man with a skin disease in my cell,” she adds.

A recent report by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) titled ‘Arbitrary detention and torture: The bitter reality of Lebanon’, says that cases like Randa’s violate article 9.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects individuals from being detained arbitrarily beyond their sentence.

CLDH estimates that foreigners incarcerated despite completing their sentences constitute nearly thirteen percent of Lebanon’s prison population.

Last year, at least nine Iraqis registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were forcibly expelled to Iraq after prolonged detention.

For Lebanese authorities the practice of systematic arbitrary detention of foreigners is used as a means of cracking down on illegal migration.

“Several Iraqi refugees we met in detention said that they took the risk of entering Lebanon illegally, knowing that they would be at risk of being arrested, because in Lebanon, one is more likely to be resettled in another country, and faster,” Marie Daunay of the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights (CLDH) told IPS.

“The Lebanese authorities would therefore be well advised to respect the rights of the refugees by ceasing to arrest them for illegal entry, to arbitrarily detain and deport them. Thus Lebanon would no longer be considered a hostile country, and therefore an opportunity for refugees. This not to mention the international assistance Lebanon could benefit from by helping refugees, who anyway, will enter its territory.”

Although Lebanon ratified the U.N. Convention against Torture in 2000, inmates are subjected to appalling living conditions due to overcrowding and lack of medical care.

The Adlieh Detention Center, which is located under a bridge and used to be an underground parking lot, legally doesn’t fall under the category of a prison but rather a holding cell that according to Lebanese law is supposed to release individuals after forty-eight hours.

Detainees spend weeks, sometimes months, underground in an insufficiently ventilated space. Usually there are thirty to thirty-five individuals crammed into thirteen cells forcing them to either sit or stand in compact areas where they can barely stretch their legs.

As a result, detainees suffer from reduced bone and muscle mass, diminished eyesight, and other general health issues, in addition to a deteriorated psychological state.

Speaking to IPS, Josie, a freelance Filipino migrant worker says: “Female migrant workers are losing years of their lives by sitting in detention, and one way to prevent this is by allowing workers to keep their passport and let the employer retain the photocopy.”

In an urgent appeal on Mar. 16, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) called on Lebanese authorities to refrain from the use of physical, psychological or judicial harassment of CLDH representatives.

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