‘Hospital treatment and more specialised care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is woefully insufficient’ - Audrey Gaughran
A severe shortfall in international support has left many Syrian refugees in Lebanon unable to access vital medical care, according to a new Amnesty International report published today (21 May). The situation is so desperate that in some cases refugees have resorted to returning to Syria to receive the treatment they need.
The 36-page report, Agonising Choices: Syrian refugees in need of health care in Lebanon, shows that in some cases Syrian refugees, including those requiring emergency treatment, have been turned away from hospitals in Lebanon. Those going untreated include people with burns and bullet wounds, as well as those suffering from life-threatening conditions such as cancer and kidney failure.
For example, Arif, a 12-year-old boy with severe burns on his legs, is among those who were denied hospital treatment, causing his condition to deteriorate. His burns turned septic and his legs swelled and became infected. Under the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)’s current guidelines, Arif does not qualify for subsidised care, so the agency was only able to cover the cost of his treatment for five days. A local charitable network has found a volunteer doctor to operate on him but Arif still reportedly requires 13 more operations which cannot be carried out in Lebanon due to a lack of specialised equipment.
Amnesty International’s Director of Global Thematic Issues, Audrey Gaughran, said:
“Arif’s story is a heart-breaking example of the impact that restrictions on provision of medical care can have on the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
“Hospital treatment and more specialised care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is woefully insufficient, with the situation exacerbated by a massive shortage of international funding.
“Syrian refugees in Lebanon are suffering as a direct result of the international community’s shameful failure to fully fund the UN relief programme in Lebanon.
“Lebanon faces difficult choices in coping with the needs of its own population and its obligations towards refugees. It cannot be left alone to deal with one of the most acute refugee crises in history. This is a shared international responsibility and countries that have the economic means must step up to it.”
The health system in Lebanon is highly privatised and expensive, leaving many refugees reliant on care subsidised by the UNHCR. The UN has appealed for £1bn for Lebanon in 2014, as part of a £2.5bn appeal for Syrian refugees, yet has so far received only 17% of this sum. This shortage of funds has meant that the UNHCR has introduced a restrictive set of eligibility criteria for people in need of hospital treatment, and even when refugees meet the criteria they most must still pay 25% of the costs themselves.
Illnesses forcing families back to Syria
Many Syrian refugees living with cancer and other long-term illnesses are unable to afford the expensive treatments they require in Lebanon and an increasing number of families face crippling debts due to mounting medical costs - with some of them returning to Syria to access cheaper health care.
According to a questionnaire sent by UNHCR to 3,170 refugee households in February, 11% of the households had returned to Syria specifically for medical reasons. One Syrian refugee Amal - has to make the journey back to Syria twice a week for kidney dialysis, which she cannot afford in Lebanon. “I feel afraid to go to Syria, but I have no choice,” she told Amnesty. Another Syrian refugee in the Bekkaa valley in Lebanon has been travelling back into Syria with his nine-year-old son who has been tested for suspected leukaemia. The father has told Amnesty that they have to get through ten checkpoints between their tented settlement in the Bekkaa valley and the hospital in Damascus.
Audrey Gaughran added:
“Illness is driving whole families into debt. There is very little work available for Syrian refugees, most of whom arrived in Lebanon with little or nothing. People have faced a choice between paying for medical care or rent or food.”
There are currently more than one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon and this is expected to reach 1.5 million by the end of 2014 - equivalent to a third of the country’s pre-Syria conflict population. Amnesty recognises that the influx of refugees has placed an overwhelming strain on Lebanon’s resources, including health services. However, it is calling on the government to adopt a long-term strategy for coping with health care needs for the Syrian refugee population.