BEIRUT: Syrian refugees in Lebanon now have to pay for basic health care due to deep budget shortfalls, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced Friday, as the country’s refugee population continues to climb.
UNHCR cuts require refugees to pay a $2 per visit fee for primary health care and 10 percent more for secondary health care. The increased costs were passed down to to refugees at the beginning of this week, U.N. officials told The Daily Star.
“We are extremely worried about how limitations in resources will impact refugees,” said Alice Wimmer, a health expert at UNHCR.
Primary health care includes medication, medical tests and consultations with doctors, and was previously free. The UNHCR has given primary health care to over 50,000 people, according to the agency. Secondary health care includes emergency hospital care and critical operations, and 75 percent of these services will now be covered by the U.N.
Wimmer said the cuts meant fewer people would be able to afford health care, which might lead to more deaths in refugee communities where many people have little or no income and rely on aid.
“Reduced assistance today will have to come at human cost,” she said. “This is nothing less than heartbreaking.”
U.N. officials said aid workers were already having to prioritize patients because of the cutbacks. Patients with chronic diseases such as cancer are especially at risk due to the high cost of their treatment.
“Under the new arrangement, the emphasis will be on targeted preventative and curative care at reduced fees, especially among pregnant women, infants, young children and the elderly,” the UNHCR’s latest report said.
UNHCR is aiding over 444,000 refugees across the country. Most are concentrated in the Bekaa Valley and north Lebanon, but there are also significant populations in Mount Lebanon, Beirut and the south. Many Syrians are living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions that are causing difficult to treat skin diseases and infections.
Government officials and local aid workers say there are actually some 650,000 refugees in the country, and the U.N. has acknowledged that it requires a better system to contact refugees.
Over 27,000 Syrians registered with the U.N. in Lebanon over the past week, according to the UNHCR. Recent fighting along the border between armed groups in Syria impeded aid work, officials said.
The health care cuts came after months of funding shortages and a huge increase in refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria far outstripped predictions. Budget shortfalls have already forced cutbacks in other programs such as housing refurbishment, and aid officials say they will soon have to cut food aid.
Over $1 billion has been pledged by international donors to ease the refugee crisis in the region, but little of that money has been transferred to aid organizations. A recent $300 million contribution from Kuwait is expected to ease some of the budget shortfalls, but UNHCR in Lebanon is currently only 38 percent funded, officials said. The U.N. has yet to project how the Kuwaiti donation will reduce planned cutbacks.
Funding for the Lebanese government’s response plan to help refugees and keep national services and infrastructure working is lower. Deputy Prime Minister Samir Mouqbel said Thursday very little money had been received from donors. The funding that has been given to Lebanese ministries for the aid response is barely enough to keep employees on staff, other government officials have said.
Also Friday, the government of Saudi Arabia distributed bedding and food to Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley and doctors in Koura were busy treating cases of leishmaniasis, a skin disease, which has broken out in the region. Treatment for the disease has become available in nearby Tripoli, according to the National News Agency.