With the spread of the coronavirus, human rights advocates and humanitarian workers have raised the alarm about the potential dangers of outbreaks in refugee communities. Many refugees are struggling to practice social distancing in their crowded living conditions and lack proper sanitation and hygiene products. With lockdowns implemented in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, groups are reporting difficulties in providing humanitarian aid to refugees, including non-coronavirus related medical aid. Syrians in Lebanon are facing a unique set of challenges, as certain municipalities are implementing restrictions on movement specifically targeted at refugees. These policies not only put Syrians in Lebanon at increased risk, but may also fuel anti-refugee sentiment and xenophobia.
Lebanon hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, most living in informal camps in northern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, Lebanon was experiencing a major financial crisis, which has affected both Lebanese and Syrian communities and has been further exacerbated by the current pandemic. Currently, Lebanon has 717 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including four cases in a refugee camp in Baalbek stemming from a Syrian woman who contracted the virus last week. While Lebanon is currently on a nationwide lockdown, there were calls for restrictions targeting refugees before these policies went into place.
A few weeks following the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the country, the leader of Lebanon’s Forces Party, Samir Geagea – who has historically expressed anti-Syrian and anti-refugee sentiment – said during a press conference on March 13th that “full measures must be taken in the vicinity of the Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps and to prevent entry and exit to them” (translated). While tightening movement in a congested area may be necessary, Gaega’s implication that refugees would be an early spreader of the virus portrays them not as potential victims, but rather as a source of the disease.
On March 15th, Lebanon initiated a country-wide lockdown, however some Lebanese municipalities have gone a step further by creating restrictions specifically targeting Syrian refugees. Human Rights Watch reported that 21 municipalities in Lebanon – 18 of which are in the Bekaa Valley, where the majority of Syrian refugee settlements are – have implemented some sort of discriminatory measures against Syrian refugees to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Of those municipalities, eight of them have implemented curfews limiting the movement of Syrian refugees, some limiting movement to just a few hours each day. HRW reported that in a municipality in Baalbek district, “Syrians are only allowed to move around the municipality between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.” and only to perform “necessary” tasks during that timeframe. These curfews are stricter than the nationwide lockdown, and some of them were implemented earlier. Human Rights Watch also said that the police force in this municipality “would enforce these measures, and that Syrians caught violating them may face “legal measures” and that their identity documentation may be confiscated.” Since most refugees rely on public transportation or taxis, which are limited under lockdown orders, even reaching medical attention can be a burden.
These discriminatory curfews further exacerbate the challenges many refugees already face when seeking medical care. On March 30th the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health highlighted the story of one Syrian refugee who died when she was denied hospital admittance to multiple hospitals in Lebanon’s northern region. Additionally, fears about curfew violations affecting the legal status of refugees, as with the threats made in the Baalbek district, may dissuade them from seeking medical treatment, increasing the spread of the virus.
Lockdowns Impacting Aid
Not only are refugees’ movements restricted, but the humanitarian workers attempting to provide food and medical aid are similarly restricted by lockdown measures. Basma Alloush, Policy and Advocacy Adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) shared with SJAC the difficulties that curfews placed on humanitarian organizations. “Given the curfews and measures the Lebanese government has placed, it has had a direct impact on the way we’re able to provide assistance and reach these communities,” said Alloush. To resolve the issue of impeded humanitarian access due to restrictive lockdown measures, the UN advocated on behalf of humanitarian organizations and NGOs to receive humanitarian exemptions. These humanitarian exemptions allow aid workers to resume their work in the camps despite the lockdown and curfews.
The Lebanese government and other host-countries should end discriminatory policies and xenophobic rhetoric, and work and work to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access by all aid groups to refugee communities while lockdown continues. This should include ensuring that humanitarian workers have the waivers and exemptions they need to be able to provide necessary medical and food aid to all vulnerable populations, including refugees living in camps and urban areas. While lockdown measures can be an important tool in the fight against the virus, governments, humanitarian organizations, and UN entities must not discriminate against refugees. Decision making regarding lockdowns should be transparent and based on sound public health guidance. Every effort should be made to provide all communities with information about coronavirus and preventative policies. If Lebanon and other host countries are to control the spread of the coronavirus, they will need to do so by protecting all residents without bias.