Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Caught Between Corona and Destitution
On the morning of 6 April 2020, while the family of Syrian refugee Bassam Hallaq – the martyr of subsistence who immolated himself in Beqaa – were paying their farewells, Minister of Social Affairs Ramzi Moucharafieh declared that there are “two million displaced Syrians in Lebanon” in the meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon held in Baabda Palace. The figure of two million is being used officially for the first time even though the UNHCR’s figures indicate that there are 910,000 refugees registered with it in Lebanon. Previously, the figure circulated had not exceeded 1.5 million Syrian refugees, registered and unregistered.
In the same meeting, President Michel Aoun put what he labeled “the two biggest crises Lebanon has witnessed” since independence, namely the COVID-19 crisis and the Syrian refugee crisis, on par with each other. While he observed that COVID-19 has swept the entire world, he said that “Lebanon alone has borne the burden of the Syrian displacement at a cost that has reached US$25 billion by the international organizations’ acknowledgment.” He called for countries to honor their obligations to Lebanon as part of the US$11 billion support package approved during the CEDRE Conference and to support Lebanon in regards to the issue of displaced Syrians.
The governmental and public preoccupation with the “burden” of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, especially amidst the panic about the spread of COVID-19, is being translated by some municipalities into arbitrary practices toward the Syrians residing within their limits. Some local authorities are using the national declaration of a general mobilization to pursue illegal practices toward the refugees, such as only permitting them to leave settlements between 9am and 1pm (Brital) under pain of culpability and punishment or imposing a curfew only on Syrians and specifying one person to buy the entire camp’s necessities (Bar Elias). Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the effect of these measures on Syrian refugees’ opportunities to receive treatment or seek help if they are infected by the virus and deemed that they contradict all of Lebanon’s international commitments. The municipal measures and the stigmatizing reaction of the Lebanese community in general to anyone suspected of being infected, which sometimes goes as far as expelling refugees from the area where they reside, has made refugees afraid to seek help and reluctant to report any symptoms. This increases the risk of COVID-19 spreading within not only the refugee community but also the Lebanese community as Syrian refugees currently constitute approximately a third of Lebanon’s population.
UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled confirmed to The Legal Agenda the organization’s “commitment to covering the costs of testing and treatment for anyone infected by Corona among registered Syrian refugees”, who number 910,000. But these only constitute half the Syrians present in Lebanon according to Moucharafieh. Who will sponsor the treatment and tests for the 1.2 million unregistered refugees at a time when Lebanon is suffering an unprecedented economic crisis and complete closure of sectors and establishments not connected to medicine and food? Most of the Syrian workforce consists of day laborers, and such work has largely ceased in Lebanon.
This investigation explores the circumstances of Syrian refugees caught between the municipalities’ measures, the scarcity of assistance, and the absence of work opportunities to offset the aid shortage. It will also investigate how easily they can access health services, how widespread awareness of the virus and means of protection is within their settlements, and how available tools of protection such as sanitizers, cleaning supplies, masks, and gloves are. Furthermore, it will investigate their ability to comply with quarantine, where present, amidst the overcrowding in their tents and settlements.
A Packet of Panadol Leads to Two Families’ Expulsion
A Syrian youth left his family’s tent in an agricultural region in Mount Lebanon Governorate to buy a packet of Panadol from the store near a settlement that comprises approximately 50 Syrian families. He was followed back by ten youths who had volunteered to help the municipality implement the general mobilization in force since 15 March 2020, which some local authorities have translated into a curfew on Syrians. The pursuers wanted to investigate why the family bought the Panadol: “Panadol means there are flu symptoms, so one of you might have corona”. When the father of the family objected to this strict monitoring (“Everyone has a headache”), an argument broke out and developed into a brawl, according to his neighbor. The volunteers not only beat the family members, who number approximately eight, but also demanded that the municipality expel them from the area or else they would stop assisting it. The municipality yielded and ordered the homeowner, along with his family and his married son’s family, to leave even though they had lived in the town for seven years. They were unable to carry their belongings with them. They sought refuge in Akkar, and two days later, the mother returned to take their clothes and some other necessities. It was rumored that the volunteers belong to one of the right-wing political parties in the region, but The Legal Agenda was unable to confirm this information.
In a similar story that did not reach the point of expulsion, a citizen from one of Akkar’s towns related to The Legal Agenda what happened to a Syrian refugee who was suffering from flu symptoms and headed to his town’s pharmacy to buy congestion medicine. As soon as he returned home, municipal guards, along with some residents, encircled the building and demanded that its residents – all Syrian – go into quarantine because they suspected that someone among them was infected with COVID-19. After some back and forth, the man was forced to go to the Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut to be tested. Once the test sample was taken, the hospital asked him to return home and self-quarantine until the result appears. The refugee did not have the return fare, so money had to be collected from his neighbors and relatives to bring him back to the town. Until the test result came back negative, there was much fuss and monitoring to ensure that he did not go out “even though the man never attempted to leave his room”, according to the witness. Of course, the entire town gossiped that someone was infected with COVID-19 even though “that’s untrue”.
Meanwhile, the media circulated news that Syrian refugee Bassam Hallaq had immolated himself in Taalbaiya, Middle Beqaa, and died after being transported to hospital in the Beqaa town of Taanayel. Hallaq had lost the ability to perform his construction work because of the curfew on all movement except for necessities. While Hallaq’s family reportedly said that he committed suicide because he could not pay his rent and secure his family’s livelihood, an employee in Beqaa Governorate told The Legal Agenda that the man lived with his married and unmarried children in one house and they suffer from numerous problems, particularly economic hardship.
55% of Syrian Refugees Are Below the Poverty Line
We are talking about “two million Syrian displaced persons” in Lebanon who the minister of social affairs said are “living in illegitimate camps in all governorates and in residential and nonresidential and permanent and nonpermanent shelters”. Abou Khaled told The Legal Agenda that 55% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live on less than US$2.9 per day. This figure is from 2019, before the escalation of the economic crisis later that year and in early 2020 and the subsequent COVID-19 crisis, which has closed the country and paralyzed most business. Such business includes labor, particularly the day labor that constitutes most refugees’ source of livelihood.
These facts, in conjunction with practices specifically restricting Syrians, raise legitimate questions about their current economic, social, and health situation. What plans have been developed to protect their health and livelihood and prevent infection? This question is especially pertinent given that just 20% of those registered with the UNHCR receive sums of no more than LL260,000 [US$172] per family each month to support their basic needs and just 40% receive LL40,000 [US$26] per individual from the World Food Programme, according to Abou Khaled. She also stated that some refugee families receive both services, which means that the percentages of beneficiaries cannot be combined. Rather, in the best-case scenario, just 50% of those registered with the UNHCR receive the token assistance while the other 50%, i.e. approximately 450,000 refugees, join the hundreds of thousands of unregistered Syrians who receive no aid.
Moucharafieh stated that “the economic deflation in Lebanon registered an additional 12% in 2020 and the percentage of people below the poverty line could rise to 52% at the end of the year, according to World Bank reports, including 22% under the line of extreme poverty and 44% unemployed”. He also emphasized that “the annual cost of the refugees ranges from US$4 to 5 billion, including approximately US$1 billion in direct expenses each year. This equates to approximately $US25 billion in total over the past years”.
The Minister of Health Accuses the International Institutions of “Timewasting”
In the same Support Group for Lebanon meeting, Minister of Health Hamad Hassan criticized the “absence of the international and UN institutions in general from the field-based health intervention plans”. He said that “most are still in the process of developing plans and studies, and this is a waste of time that could form an epidemiological and humanitarian disaster”. He added that the ministry “does not differentiate between communities or nationalities, and it provides protection transparently and professionally to everyone on all Lebanese territory”. Hamad left it up to the minister of social affairs to identify needs: “The need for beds and intensive care units is becoming very large and pressing – approximately 200 additional beds, 25 additional intensive care units, and additional respirators if [the Syrians] become infected by Corona. And there is prevention... and the special programs”.
On her part, Abou Khaled stated that since late February 2020, the UNHCR has been “distributing among the refugees information about COVID-19, its symptoms, protection from it, and monitoring it”. The awareness-raising sessions held with partner organizations encompassed all the overcrowded refugee settlements, which constitute 22% of the refugee community in Lebanon.
Abou Khaled stated that the UNHCR works “closely with the national authorities to respond to COVID-19, and it has received assurances that [Syrians] would not be detained, arrested, or deported for not possessing a residency permit if they seek a Corona test”. She said that so far, no COVID-19 infection has been recorded among Syrian refugees, but she did not give a specific figure for Syrians tested even though we waited days for it. On the other hand, workers in organizations that track Syrians explained that they have not seen a single Red Cross vehicle transport a refugee from the camps to be tested, which raises serious questions about the number tested. Furthermore, a report issued by the Ministry of Public Health on 7 April 2020 indicates that three Syrians are among the infected in Lebanon, though it did not specify whether they are from the refugee settlements.
Abou Khaled stated that the same testing mechanism is followed for Lebanese and non-Lebanese people via the Ministry of Public Health when the COVID-19 hotline is called. The protocol advances in accordance with the case. The ministry’s team asks the caller a series of questions about symptoms, the possibilities associated with them, and the related procedures, including home isolation and going for testing. Here, Abou Khaled indicated that refugees who can get to Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut are asked to go by themselves and to use preventative measures such as masks and gloves. If there is no means of transport, the Ministry of Public Health asks the Red Cross to transport the refugee.
Abou Khaled also pointed out that the UNHCR is striving to supply 800 beds for treatment and 100 beds for intensive care in Lebanese governmental hospitals, as well as quarantine centers serving both the host and refugee communities in regions with large numbers of refugees. However, she did not state the timeframe for providing them.
Jihad, a Syrian refugee in the Beqaa plain with five children, the eldest being 10 years old, pointed out an irony to The Legal Agenda. He received a phone call from an employee of one of the international organizations asking him to meet at the camp’s entrance to take what the employee described as “assistance” for the camp’s residents. He was surprised when the employee gave him a large carton containing a bundle of flyers that “raise refugees’ awareness of coronavirus”. He asked the employee, “But how can we get masks, gloves, and sanitizing and cleaning materials?” The employee dismissed responsibility with a handwave: “This is what I have at the moment”.
Not All Curfews Are Equal
Meanwhile, the practices of some Lebanese municipalities that have imposed a discriminatory curfew on Syrians reveal the poor situation that the refugees are suffering. Activists spread news on social media of an event involving a Syrian in one of the Batroun district’s villages as an example of what happens to them away from the media. A guard of one of the municipalities happened upon the refugee on the road. The guard became enraged and managed to beat the refugee even though some people tried to stop him. Moreover, the municipality gave the refugee one hour to leave the town even though he had lived there for a decade without any problems.
At a time when many Lebanese and officials argue that the restrictions affect both Syrians and Lebanese, the neighbor of the family expelled from Mount Lebanon to Akkar spoke of discrimination against Syrians specifically: “For example, we, as Syrians and Lebanese, work in the Tannourine water company. The municipality allows the Lebanese to go to work in the company every day as usual and prohibits the Syrians... Isn’t this decision racist?”. He said that the day workers in the company receive LL30,000 [US$20] for each day of work. “Where will we get [money] to live? Does Corona infect Syrians and not Lebanese? Or do they consider us infected and sick just because of Corona’s spread in Lebanon?”. The refugee also stressed the dire circumstances of many Syrian families who “have nothing to eat”.
Twenty Additional Police to Guard 15,000 Syrians
As soon as the topic of the Syrian refugees and COVID-19 is raised in front of any Lebanese person, whether a citizen or an official involved in the Syrian refugee crisis, the same response is always given: “Why? Is the situation of the Lebanese better?”
“Of course the Lebanese are suffering, but has a municipality employed 20 additional police to monitor Lebanese and control their movements?”, an employee of an organization that works with refugees said to The Legal Agenda. He stated that the Talhayat municipality in the Akkar plain, as one example, has employed 20 additional police to guard approximately 15,000 Syrian refugees residing within its limits and spread across 180 small and large camps. They lock the entrances of the Syrian camps and leave one entrance via which they allow people to exit only for absolute necessities: “For example, if we want to go to the doctor, we have to bring a medical report for them to allow us to return and enter our tent”.
A source in the Talhayat municipality placed its measures in the context of safeguarding the community of Syrians and Lebanese: “The curfew applies to everyone, and we allow one person to go out to buy the other camp residents’ necessities when needed”.
The source said that the municipality takes interest in anyone with symptoms that could arouse suspicion of an infection, “lest things get out of hand”. The municipality sends the patient to the town’s clinic to be examined. Of course, there is no COVID-19 test in Akkar plain, where at least 60,000 Syrian refugees live. “We send anyone whom the clinic doctor suspects to have Corona to Rafik Hariri University Hospital”, he said.
Exchanging Pasta for Milk
Jamal lives in a tent with her family and her husband, who has not found work for eight months, in one of the camps of the Bebnine township between Tripoli and Akkar. The mother of four receives no assistance, “not from the UNHCR nor anyone else -– they screened me out and I don’t know why”. The refugees use the term “screened” [gharbala] when the UNHCR reviews refugees’ files and denies them assistance. Jamal stated that she received a “subsistence” carton from one of the organizations in early April on account of the spread of COVID-19. She sold four packets of pasta, a bag of beans, and a bottle of oil to buy a bag of milk for her baby: “My milk dried up because of the scarcity of food, and my daughter will die of starvation”.
Keywords: COVID-19, Lebanon, Syrian refugee, Syria, Refugee, Curfew