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Lebanon’s two million refugees face a potential coronavirus catastrophe

Lebanon’s two million refugees face a potential coronavirus catastrophe


The coronavirus pandemic is difficult enough for most people, whatever their circumstances. But what does “stay at home” mean when you can’t go back to your home? How can you practise “social distancing” when you’re forced to live in an overcrowded refugee camp? How can you regularly wash your hands when you barely even have access to clean water and soap?

These are just some of the dilemmas the world’s millions of refugees are now having to confront. Coronavirus has affected all of us, but people uprooted from their homes are at particularly heightened risk from this deadly virus.

In Lebanon, the situation could rapidly become catastrophic for the 1.5 million Syrians who’ve fled from conflict and repression, and the 475,000 Palestinians who haven’t been able to return home since the creation of Israel in 1948. 

Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are being discriminated 

For both these groups, things were already bleak pre-COVID-19. Despite having been in the country for more than 70 years, Palestinian refugees are subject to a wide range of discriminatory laws, preventing them from accessing public education and health services, and from working in at least 36 professions, including medicine.

Syrians likewise face serious bureaucratic difficulties, including getting and keeping legal residence. Many of them face detention just for being in the country, and they’re routinely harassed and arbitrarily arrested by the Lebanese police. In recent months, this hostility has worsened as the country plunged into its worst economic slump for decades. Almost half of Lebanon’s 6.8 million population now live below the poverty line, with economic hardship especially severe among refugee populations.

The current health crisis is making it worse 

COVID-19 is making all of this significantly worse. To date, the pandemic appears to have been relatively contained in Lebanon, with 541 cases and 19 deaths. But there are doubts over how reliable these low numbers are, and the number of cases is increasing. The country’s healthcare sector is weak and will rapidly be unable to cope.

Meanwhile, there are real concerns over whether Syrian and Palestinian refugees will be able to receive the medical care they may need to combat the pandemic. Although the Beirut government has announced free coronavirus testing in one of the country’s main hospitals, it’s unclear whether refugees can access the tests and what kind of documentation they would need if they can. Only around one in five of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees have legal status, and fear of deportation as well as widespread anti-Syrian sentiment could discourage them from seeking treatment.

Both Palestinians and Syrians in Lebanon already live with restrictions on their movements, restrictions which have tightened during the coronavirus crisis. In recent weeks, more than 20 Lebanese municipalities have introduced curfews that apply only to Syrians, as if the spread of the virus could be contained by discriminatory measures rather than collective efforts and solidarity.

International solidarity is required 

Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are heavily dependent on UN agencies for basic social services, including healthcare. But these services are currently under threat after politically-motivated US funding cuts.

As with all of us, Lebanon’s Palestinians and Syrians deserve to be protected from this deadly pandemic. As the host country, Lebanon has a duty to protect the health of its refugee population. But these efforts need backing from the international community. It’s been encouraging to see the UN and some of its member states - including the UK - identify the plight of Syrian and Palestinian refugees as a key priority in the fight against coronavirus in Lebanon. Such international support could yet contribute to a national response that guarantees the right to health of everyone in Lebanon, regardless of legal status and income.

But unfulfilled promises of aid for refugees are one of the great failings of international humanitarian work around the world. As coronavirus takes hold in Lebanon, we’ll be watching to see that the country’s vulnerable refugee populations aren’t sacrificed to this terrible virus.





Photo for Twitter/FB shares: © Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
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