Syrian Refugees in Lebanon and the coronavirus: Stay safe or starve?

The UNHCR is exploring with the Lebanese authorities the possibility of setting up field hospitals.

A Syrian refugee man sanitizes a tent, as Lebanon extends a lockdown by two weeks to combat the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a Syrian refugee camp in the village of Ketermaya, Lebanon March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

No cases of coronavirus have been so far detected in Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon. A few suspected cases, however, are being closely monitored and have been isolated pending test results. Such an announcement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dismisses alarming but unfounded rumors that Covid-19 is being spread by Syrian nationals in the country. Displaced communities have been under strict confinement for three weeks now in certain regions of the country, imposed by local authorities long before the government declared ‘general mobilization’ to curb the spread of the covornavirus.

Residents of informal camps are now obliged to stay home, and only one person per camp (usually the Shawiche who is the person nominated by other refugees to act as the settlement supervisor and decision-maker) is allowed to go out to get supplies for them.

The same restrictions are applied on tenants who are only allowed to leave their apartments when absolutely necessary. Many municipalities have even launched disinfection campaigns in certain regions.

Except that the Syrian refugees today are sounding the alarm. Aware of the danger, they are ready to respect the confinement measures as much as needed out of concern for their health and that of others. Yet, they desperately need aid, mainly food and sanitation supplies, to allow them to survive, avoid contamination ... and not to starve.

We will not die from coronavirus, but from hunger

These severe restrictions prevent the refugees from working. Even the informal daily jobs they used to handle in normal times, such as in farming, construction or transportation, are no more available. This prompted a resident of Ersal to share his despair via social networks. "We will not die from the coronavirus, but from hunger," he cried in a video posted on Facebook. "We don't even have enough (money) to get a bundle of bread."

Luckily, no cases of coronavirus have been so far reported in Ersal where 80,000 displaced Syrians are following the containment guidelines to the letter. "Each family lives in autarky and each camp is observing self-isolation," said Abou Ibrahim, director of the Syrian association Sawaed Alkher, which is handling disinfection in the local camps, with the support of the local authorities. He, however, warned that the situation is delicate and stressed the necessity to provide the refugee communities with means to fight the coronavirus. "Don't forget the Syrian refugees," he said, explaining that they need soaps, detergents, disinfectants, masks, gloves and "everything necessary to clean up the camps." The virus's spread within refugee communities "would be a catastrophe for both, the displaced and the Lebanese population."

In the Bekaa, the message is the same. "It is a blessing that no coronavirus case was registered and that the refugees are well aware of the danger. But to stay confined and survive, they need food and sanitary assistance," said Muzna el-Zohori, a Syrian refugee, student and humanitarian activist . The young woman spoke of "the total destitution" of displaced Syrians in Lebanon, who have had neither the right to go out nor go to work, since the new coronavirus was detected in the country. "They have been drawing on their reserves for three weeks, after having suffered successively from economic crises, the shortage of dollars and the aftermath of the popular uprising. And some have nothing left," she lamented. Besides, the directives issues by the local authorities risk allowing "the Shawiches or those responsible for the informal camps to take advantage of the situation and exploit the residents." Hence the need for UNHCR and international agencies to assist the displaced Syrians. "With forced unemployment, the aid granted to the most disadvantaged families is insufficient," she insisted. And so far, only a few informal camps have been disinfected in the Bekaa. "

Prevention and awareness since the month of February

The UNHCR is well aware that the coronavirus pandemic is making Syrian refugees who already live in poverty even more vulnerable. However, it is now focusing on health risks and fighting the spread of Covid-19, in coordination with the Lebanese government, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF. This is crucial, given "the serious overcrowding" in Syrian informal camps and rental accommodation. "We have been increasing prevention and awareness campaigns for Syrian refugees since February, including precautions to be taken, instructions on hand washing, and also distribution of soap, detergents and disinfectants," said Lisa Abou Khaled, UNHCR spokesperson in Lebanon.

At the same time, the UN organization is discussing with the Lebanese authorities modalities in case infection cases are registered and hospitalization is required. That would require increasing hospital bed capacities, given the current limited capacity, with the possibility of setting up field hospitals, as part of the national plan to combat the coronavirus outbreak, according to Abou Khaled.

UNHCR is thus ready to secure the necessary funds to cover the costs of testing and treating Syrian refugees and plans to set up confinement tents to prevent contagion from spreading. Abou Khaled explained that the financial aid plan to support the most vulnerable remains unchanged. Besides the additional compensation for winter heating, 20% of refugee families registered with the UNHCR will continue to receive 260,000 LL per month and 40% of families will continue to cash 40,000 LL per month per person from the World Food Program.


Is the response to the needs of Syrian refugees to face coronavirus sufficient, at a time the government has openly expressed its inability to take care of the refugees, whether Palestinians or Syrians? Ziad el-Sayegh, an expert in public policies and refugee affairs, assured that "UNHCR protocols are very firm and are transmitted by WHO." He, however, drew attention to "essential issues" related to the survival of refugees and displaced persons in Lebanon, namely the repercussions of the financial and economic crisis on these communities in these times of prevention against the coronavirus, and while the UNHCR makes preventive medicine its priority. Solidarity among the refugees themselves and between them and their host communities, as well as "the modalities of cooperation" between the Lebanese authorities and the UN during and after the coronavirus are also to be reviewed. "The authorities must not only consider a national plan to fight the spread of the virus, but also provide an economic response to the refugees and the host communities," el-Sayegh said. He hoped that this crisis will would give way to solidarity discourse, which is likely to give birth "to a collective and individual responsibility".

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 25th of March)

No cases of coronavirus have been so far detected in Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon. A few suspected cases, however, are being closely monitored and have been isolated pending test results. Such an announcement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dismisses alarming but unfounded rumors that Covid-19 is being spread by Syrian nationals in the country. Displaced...