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Lebanese cry foul as Syrian doctors fill gaps in health care

  • File - Minister Sejaan Azzi arrives at the Parliament in Beirut, Thursday, March 20, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

  • File - Wednesday, March 5, 2014, a Syrian doctor, right, checks the injured legs of Hatem, 22, a Syrian rebel who was injured during a battle against government forces and Hezbollah fighters near Yabroud, the last rebel stronghold in Syria's mountainous Qalamoun region, at Rahma hospital in the Lebanese-Syrian border town of Arsal, eastern Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT: There is growing concern over Syrian doctors working illegally in Lebanon, with politicians and professionals in the field questioning whether qualified foreigners should be able to fill the gap in a health sector groaning under the strain of so many extra people.

Last week, Future MP Atef Majdalani said a large number of Syrian doctors were working in Lebanon, particularly in the Bekaa Valley, in violation of the country’s labor laws, which states only Lebanese nationals are permitted to practice medicine.

Certified Syrian doctors, however, insist they are providing life-saving services to both refugees and vulnerable Lebanese who have long suffered at the hands of a health care system that is costly and difficult to access in rural areas.

In the northeastern border town of Arsal, where 50,000 Lebanese and 100,000 Syrian refugees share scant medical resources, several Syrian doctors are openly offering their services.

“We’re doing the work the Health Ministry and the U.N. are not able to do,” Dr. Kassem al-Zein, a Syrian doctor who manages a field hospital in Arsal, told The Daily Star.

Dr. Bilal, a Syrian doctor who manages a hospital in Arsal, said that while he understood the government’s desire to reserve jobs for Lebanese nationals, the dire circumstances demanded a more liberal interpretation of the rules.

“There are a lot of refugees, and Lebanon is a small country,” he explained by phone. “I think this is an exception. You can’t really go according to the laws.”

While aid organizations and Syrian doctors offer subsidized medical services to refugees, many are still unable to afford vital health care, according to a report released last month by Amnesty International. “Hospital treatment and more specialized care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is woefully insufficient,” it stated.

Moreover, Bilal pointed out that Syrian doctors were filling a longstanding void in Arsal, which has suffered from a dearth of doctors and medical professionals for decades.

In addition to some 3,000 Syrian refugees, Bilal said Syrian doctors at his hospital treated approximately 1,500 Lebanese patients each month.

And Arsal is not alone in capitalizing on Syrian medical labor. An employee at Dr. Hamed Farhat hospital, located in the West Bekaa town of Kamad al-Loz, said it employed a number of Syrian doctors, regardless of the law.

The trend is reinforcing a national perception that Syrians are occupying paid positions that are increasingly scarce, in a country that as of June 2014 had a 35 percent youth unemployment rate.

Syrians are “taking jobs away from Lebanese,” said Dr. Mahmoud, a Lebanese doctor in Hermel, because they “accept less money.” He said Syrian doctors were now working in many hospitals throughout the Bekaa Valley.

While Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi told The Daily Star he was sympathetic to the plight of unemployed Syrian professionals, he said the need to reserve certain professions for Lebanese nationals was “not a question of human rights, it’s a question of the [Lebanese] labor law ... We have unemployed Lebanese doctors. We have unemployed Lebanese pharmacists.”

But he also admitted Lebanese hospitals deserved a share of the blame: “They prefer to hire a Syrian [doctor] who takes $300 a month rather than a Lebanese who receives $3,000 a month.”

A senior humanitarian aid worker, who asked not to be identified, said the driving force behind the censure of Syrian doctors was “a money issue, and that’s the saddest part.”

Lebanese doctors do not seem particularly concerned that Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese populations continue to receive substandard medical care, he added.

For Dr. Hudhud, a Syrian doctor who helps coordinate medical care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, his humanitarian mandate superseded Lebanese law. “I can’t leave people to die just because the law doesn’t allow me to practice medicine in Lebanon.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 12, 2014, on page 3.
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Summary

In the northeastern border town of Arsal, where 50,000 Lebanese and 100,000 Syrian refugees share scant medical resources, several Syrian doctors are openly offering their services.

In addition to some 3,000 Syrian refugees, Bilal said Syrian doctors at his hospital treated approximately 1,500 Lebanese patients each month.

Syrians are "taking jobs away from Lebanese," said Dr. Mahmoud, a Lebanese doctor in Hermel, because they "accept less money". He said Syrian doctors were now working in many hospitals throughout the Bekaa Valley.

For Dr. Hudhud, a Syrian doctor who helps coordinate medical care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, his humanitarian mandate superseded Lebanese law.


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