Clamping down on refugees will not save Lebanon from the pandemic

Palestinian and Syrian refugees need adequate testing and healthcare, not more restrictions on their movement.

Palestinian camp
People wear face masks as they drive past a poster depicting late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut's suburbs, Lebanon on March 30, 2020 [Reuters/Mohamed Azakir]

As the coronavirus outbreak spread around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) was quick to recommend that countries take measures to contain the deadly virus. It urged physical distancing to limit the spread of the virus and encouraged increased personal and public hygiene. In Lebanon, this has provided another opportunity for political figures to target marginalised communities, especially Palestinian and Syrian refugees.

At a March 13 news conference, Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, who is known for making racist statements, implied that Palestinian and Syrian refugees would be spreaders of COVID-19 in Lebanon and argued that the refugee communities posed a threat to public health.

Despite Geagea’s attempts to blame the outbreak on refugee populations, Lebanon’s first COVID-19 cases were not Palestinian or Syrian refugees. Rather, it is suspected they were Lebanese nationals who were returning from Iran and Jesuit priests who had travelled to Italy.

The priests are based in a church less than 30 minutes away from Geagea’s home in Ma’arab, north of Beirut, yet he made no mention of them in his news conference. 

Instead, he called for the Lebanese Army to tighten security around the Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps and limit entry and exit to and from them.

It soon became clear that the local authorities shared Geagea’s attitude towards refugees.

On March 15, the government announced general mobilisation across the country and local authorities started coordinating with security forces to stop “unnecessary” movement from camps. Refugee communities have already complained that the curfews they face are longer than those imposed on Lebanese citizens. In some areas, they are allowed to be outside of their houses for just five hours.

Palestinians have faced restrictions for decades by the Lebanese authorities, and so have Syrians more recently. That the Lebanese authorities are resorting to such actions amid the COVID-19 outbreak is rather unsurprising.

Putting more restrictions on refugees than on the rest of the population will not stop the spread of the virus, but it will add to the suffering of these marginalised groups. What both the Lebanese and refugee communities need is improved access to testing, health care, clean water, personal protective gear, and hygienic products. 

UNRWA, the agency responsible for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, recently announced that it would coordinate with the Lebanese health ministry to provide COVID-19 testing and treatment for Palestinian refugees at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri Hospital. Similarly, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it will assist with the cost of these services for Syrian refugees.

On March 28, Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan declared that Lebanon will share responsibility with the appropriate UN agencies for refugee healthcare. However, it is unclear whether access to services will be on an equal basis or if there will be discrimination in care as well. 

Given the persistent problems with access to services among refugees and the fragmented nature of health care provision in Lebanon, it is doubtful that they would have adequate health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Lebanon is home to more than 475,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom have lived in the country since they were expelled or forced to flee from Palestine in the 1948 Nakba. More than half live in 12 officially recognised refugee camps.

Palestinian refugees are denied access to healthcare services in Lebanese government hospitals. Instead, 28 UNRWA-run health facilities provide modest primary healthcare services. Chronic or severe health conditions are transferred to hospitals run by the Palestinian Red Crescent. UNRWA also assists Palestinian refugees with some of the costs for care by specialists in private Lebanese hospitals. These efforts, however, have not provided adequate care for Palestinian refugees and have diminished even more after the US decided to cut funding for the agency.

The situation of the more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon is no better. The UNHCR, not UNRWA, is responsible for ensuring that Syrian refugees have access to health care services in Lebanon. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been persistent issues of access and availability beyond primary healthcare services. 

In the past, the Lebanese government has systematically left out Palestinian and Syrian refugees from public health initiatives. In 2018, for example, the health ministry launched a national campaign for the early detection of breast cancer which was aimed at “Lebanese women only”, and excluded foreign women residing in Lebanon, including Palestinians and Syrians. 

The health ministry justified the exclusions by claiming that the campaign was directed at citizens who pay taxes. However, Palestinian and Syrian refugees are not tax-exempt and pay any fees required for services to the Lebanese treasury.

With persistent racist rhetoric coming from politicians like Geagea, there are now fears that refugees in Lebanon will not only be scapegoats for the government’s inability to cope with an outbreak, but they will also not have access to proper healthcare when the virus reaches their communities. This combination of political rhetoric, new security restrictions, and uncertain access to treatment could serve to discourage refugees from seeking care and contribute to the spread of COVID-19. 

The coronavirus outbreak affects all of us and the virus does not discriminate in who it strikes. Racism and scapegoating of vulnerable communities will certainly not defeat it.

If COVID-19 spreads in the refugee camps and gatherings in Lebanon it will be a humanitarian catastrophe – one that will not remain limited to the Palestinian or Syrian refugees. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.