BEIRUT: As COVID-19 (coronavirus) spreads west from China, affecting over 100,000 people in more than 115 countries, concerns have arisen over the potentially devastating impact it could have on vulnerable refugee and migrant populations.
According to government estimates, there are currently 1.5 million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon, meaning the country has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world – roughly one refugee for every four nationals.
Although Syrian refugees have long represented one of the country’s most vulnerable groups, the economic crisis has only added to their suffering – worsening already poor access to basic health care services, increasing food scarcity and forcing many into less adequate shelter.
Despite no cases of COVID-19 so far being reported among Syrian refugees, this pre-existing vulnerability has led humanitarian organizations to begin developing contingency plans in the event it does spread.
“COVID-19 is a global and fast-evolving situation which UNHCR is closely monitoring globally,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, the spokesperson for the United Nations’ refugee agency in Lebanon. “Under the [Lebanese] government’s lead, together with other U.N. agencies and partners, UNHCR is developing contingencies for stepped-up measures in case of a larger spread of the virus in the country.”
According to Khaled, UNHCR have begun carrying out awareness sessions in camps across Lebanon on the necessary preventative measures, and have intensified their digital outreach campaign on platforms including SMS, WhatsApp and Facebook groups to ensure that refugees are able to access the necessary information regarding the virus.
In a statement released by the World Health Organization, the basic advice for protection against COVID-19 comes down to staying away from people who may be infected, maintaining vigilant personal hygiene and seeking medical attention if symptoms indeed do occur.
However, with many Syrian refugees living in substandard housing or overcrowded camps – often lacking access to adequate health services and proper sanitation – they find themselves at a much higher risk of contracting the virus.
“Issues of crowding are key, and problems with water and sanitation put them at a very high risk,” said Dr. Nasser Yassine, interim director at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute, and a specialist in public health policy among refugee populations. “More than 42 percent of Syrian refugees live in substandard housing, and one third of refugee families live in overcrowded non-permanent structures that are less than 4.5 square meters in size. This makes them much more vulnerable than others and therefore puts them in a lot of danger.”
To make matters worse, if they do happen to contract the virus, their precarious refugee status also has the potential to undermine their ability to access treatment.
“Because many refugees don't have papers, we need to monitor if this is going to affect if they will go and seek the appropriate health services,” said Samir Chalhoub, policy and advocacy lead for the Danish Refugee Council in Lebanon. “In recent focus group discussions, some of those refugees who do have papers have also reported having them confiscated by hospitals until they pay their dues.”
Despite repeated attempts, The Daily Star could not reach the Health Ministry for comment.
Last week, according to a statement released by Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s office, government figures met with representatives from the WHO, UNHCR and UNICEF to discuss measures that needed to be taken in camps for displaced Syrians as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Although for many this showed signs of progress, government responses – particularly at the local level – have already begun to show signs of misguided hysteria and outright xenophobia.
Despite their being no recorded cases of the virus in Syria, the municipal council of the village of Baaloul, in Lebanon’s West Bekaa, decreed last week Tuesday that refugees residing in the village and returning from Syria must "isolate themselves in their place of residence, whether it be a tent or a house, for 15 days, under penalty of sanctions.”
Unlike their Syrian neighbors, the village’s Lebanese residents were allowed to carry on as normal.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new. In recent years, municipalities in Lebanon have forcibly evicted thousands of refugees in mass expulsions without a legal basis or due process. With tens of thousands still remaining at risk of eviction today, many are concerned that the outbreak of COVID-19 in Lebanon will form a new basis for xenophobia and such extrajudicial measures.
“In the event of an outbreak, local authorities need to ensure that refugees are able to access relevant services in a timely manner, and must avoid any policies that undermine their protection,” Chalhoub said.
With Health Minister Hamad Hasan warning last Friday that the COVID-19 outbreak is no longer in the containment phase in Lebanon, it remains to be seen what potential impact it could have on Lebanon’s refugee population if it is left unchecked. – Additional Reporting by Ghada Alsharif