AMMAN — In one of the Syrian refugee camps in Arsal, on the slopes of Lebanon’s northeastern mountain range, Abdulrahman al-Hamad fears recording cases of Coronavirus in the camps. “If one refugee is infected in the Arsal camps, we all will be infected due to the large number of tents in this small physical space.”
From February 21 to April 7, Lebanon officially registered 548 cases of Coronavirus. While in a statement on March 26 human rights organizations said that three Syrian refugees in Lebanon had been infected by the virus, the spokesperson and communications officer for UNHCR Lebanon, Lisa Abu Khaled, told Syria Direct that no cases were recorded among the 910,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Lebanon.
Public health risks, poor living standards
Alongside the rise in the number of cases in Lebanon, Syrian refugees are increasingly concerned about registering cases in the camps due to a lack of disinfectants and precautionary measures, and the fact that “the virus can easily spread throughout the camps by Lebanese security personnel, UNHCR staff, and local organizations that enter on a daily basis,” according to a Syrian medical source in Arsal who spoke to Syria Direct.
Even before the outbreak of the global pandemic, “disinfectant and sanitizing materials were not available in addition to a shortage of water,” Abdulhafiz al-Houlani, a Syrian journalist living in Lebanon, told Syria Direct. He went on to add that “bathrooms and kitchens inside the camps were not hygienic either.”
From its point of view, the Lebanese government stated that “the healthcare of refugees [Syrians and Palestinians] is the shared responsibility of Lebanon and UN agencies.”
Despite the Lebanese General Security disinfecting and sterilizing 72 Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, the operations “did not include the inside of tents, but rather, only covered the grounds of the camps,” explained al-Houlani. Additionally, the sterilization campaign failed to include a large number of refugee camps. In Arsal, “there are about 131 Syrian refugee camps alone, inhabited by approximately 60,000 refugees,” Waleed Rahma, head of the health committee of the “Iyadi al-Khayr” initiative, told Syria Direct. The initiative was launched by Syrian refugees with the aim of collecting monthly contributions from refugees to be used in times of crisis in the form of relief assistance.
With regards to quarantines, the Syrian medical source in Arsal stressed that the one room provided by the municipality of Arasal to quarantine Syrian refugees is still under construction, while “the medical testing of the virus is not available in the camps.”
As a result, UNHCR Lebanon has “raised the level of awareness of maintaining personal hygiene among refugees, and started working with local entities on adopting precautionary measures and developing the necessary responses whenever there are confirmed cases of infections,” Abu Khaled said.
“UNHCR’s procedures to combat the virus include strengthening the capabilities of the Lebanese health sector by providing medicines and creating additional wards in hospitals with more beds in intensive care units so that there isn’t a competition between different communities in Lebanon.” She also added that UNHCR is prepared to cover the costs of medical examination and treatment fees in the event of recorded cases.
In addition to these public health challenges, the economic risks associated with the pandemic have risen to the fore, especially in light of Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis which has been sharply unfolding since last year.
With the virus spreading throughout the country, on March 15 the Lebanese government ordered its citizens not to leave their homes unless necessary and prohibited both public and private gatherings.
While the government decision affects the economic security of many Lebanese citizens, Syrian refugees remain among the most affected, as in the case of Abdulrahman al-Hamad, who has to support his parents, his wife, and three children. He feels that he can no longer provide for his family’s needs “after my work stopped and the support from the organizations operating in the camp decreased, [alongside] insanely high food prices.”
The economic repercussions of the crisis also extend beyond the confines of refugee camps. Saleh al-Ahmad, a Syrian refugee who lives in Bekaa, said that his landlord is asking him to continue paying rent despite the curfew. “Although I asked him to postpone rent payments until the curfew is lifted, he refused and gave me a deadline of mid-April to either pay or hand over the keys,” al-Ahmad told Syria Direct.
In fact, one Syrian refugee, Bassam al-Halaq, died after lighting himself on fire in the town of Taalabaya in the outskirts of Zahleh. He killed himself in protest of increasingly difficult living conditions and financial problems he faced in Lebanon. He was originally from the city of Darayya in Reef Dimashq.
Hatred and discrimination reemerge
Against the backdrop of Lebanon’s economic crisis and the outbreak of popular protests on October 17, 2019, the hate speech spewed by many Lebanese politicians and their followers toward Syrian refugees—especially those supporting Bashar al-Assad—has subsided as they have become increasingly preoccupied with containing the economic and political fallout of the crisis.
Ahmad al-Qaseer, a Syrian journalist living in Tripoli, confirmed to Syria Direct that there had been a decline in hate speech against Syrian refugees because “the government and citizens feel that these are difficult times for everyone.”
Nonetheless, there are still fears that Coronavirus will reignite forms of hate speech and discriminatory practices against Syrian refugees.
Last Thursday, Human Rights Watch revealed that “At least 21 Lebanese municipalities have introduced discriminatory restrictions on Syrian refugees that do not apply to Lebanese residents as part of their efforts to combat COVID-19.”
On March 30, the Lebanese health minister referred a case to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of a Syrian woman who died after several hospitals refused to admit her.
In the face of all of this, “death may not come to us from Coronavirus, but it may come from its repercussions,” al-Hamad said.
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Rohan Advani.