Source: Wikimedia Commons
Downtown Beirut's empty streets following the pandemic, Wikimedia Commons

Is the EU’s humanitarian and financial assistance all what refugees need to survive COVID-19 in Lebanon?

On the COVID-19 pandemic and the already-existing refugee crisis in Lebanon

July 7, 2020

By : Josiane Matar


As Lebanon enters its second wave of the pandemic with 1855 cases of confirmed contaminations, the country grapples with a set of challenges as it faces its worst economic crisis in decades while hosting the highest number of refugees per capita. The pandemic added fuel to a fire that has erupted in October 17 exacerbating existing vulnerabilities facing both the Lebanese and the refugee community. In light of that, the Lebanese government appealed for foreign assistance for its public health system and continues to delegate responsibility to humanitarian organizations, mainly the UNHCR, to handle and manage the situation in refugee camps. Lebanon’s response to COVID-19, at the nexus with the refugee issue, shows a well-established pattern: an absence of a centralized approach to crisis management, a thorough dependence on outside actors. Being the biggest donor to Lebanon, with a volume of cooperation amounting to €86 million, the European Union has always come to the rescue of the Lebanese government. Since the outbreak of the Syrian war, the EU’s support to help Syrian refugees and Syria’s neighboring countries has been provided through the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis. In March, the EU has mobilized €240 million ($263 million) to support Syrian refugees and host communities raising the total assistance via the EU Regional Trust Fund more than €2 billion. A newly adopted package has mobilised over €900 million specifically for Lebanon to ensure the continuity of critical healthcare, to raise awareness and to finance the purchase of protective equipment and hygiene items. In addition to that, the Ambassador of the European Union in Lebanon, Ralph Tarraf, announced that the European Union is donating 15 million euros to the World Health Organization to support the health system in Lebanon, with a main focus on access to essential medication to those who need it for the coming two years. It is thus worth questioning whether the EU’s financial support is sufficient to respond to the need of the refugee communities and provide them with the required awareness and protection against the spread of COVID-19.

80% [of the respondents] have lost their main source of income and 85% do not have access to or have the possibility to buy sufficient sterilizing and hygienic materials.

Since Lebanon confirmed its first coronavirus case on February 21, the UNHCR has stated that it would cover the costs of testing and treatment of COVID-19 for Syrian refugees in any treatment center, but only after the Health Ministry’s screening and recommendation. In order to stem the spread of the coronavirus, security forces had started carrying out disinfection operations in a number of refugee camps, as they patrol the camps to ensure the implementation of the curfew during the general mobilization period in cooperation with municipalities and the local community. Nonetheless, many advocacy groups have argued that Lebanon has put into place restrictions that discriminate against Syrian refugees as it battles the coronavirus. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 21 Lebanese municipalities have introduced discriminatory restrictions on Syrian refugees as part of their efforts to combat COVID-19 – including enforced curfews on informal tent settlements. Furthermore, essential migrant support services are being closed and some NGOs that previously provided mobile medical services had been blocked from entering the camps. The Lebanese government has also announced further limits in which only one person would be allowed to conduct all of a given camp’s shopping. Amidst the increasing restrictions and the deteriorating economic conditions, thousands of refugees lost their sources of livelihood and became unable to afford sanitizers and cleaning materials. Hence, migrants’ socioeconomic status negatively impacted their ability to take all precautionary measures against COVID-19. Despite the awareness campaigns and the increase in the financial assistance to refugees present in camps, tens of thousands of unregistered Syrian refugees remain vulnerable and unable to receive the needed awareness. In a report published in Refugee Protection Watch, it has been mentioned that 80% of the respondents have lost their main source of income and 85% do not have access to or have the possibility to buy sufficient sterilizing and hygienic materials.

The collective concern should first and foremost focus on providing health assistance to those at higher risk, we must also recall that the detection of one case in a refugee camp would be disastrous. Any funding and assistance at this point is indispensable; yet, insufficient. A response should ensure coordination among all parties and apply equally to Lebanese citizens and refugees alike with no possibility for stigmatization. The Lebanese government is not ready and unable to afford the costs of handling a possible outbreak inside refugee camps. Therefore, increased effort should be invested to ensure a proper coordination between the Lebanese state and humanitarian organizations. In the absence of a government-led national plan that takes the activities and needs of refugees into consideration, the Lebanese government will not be able to prevent the risk of a disastrous outbreak. Hence, the EU should compile its financial assistance with technical guidance and expertise. This would likely direct the Lebanese government towards adopting a comprehensive crisis response plan that would ensure that aid and support to the COVID-19 crisis is available without discrimination between refugees and Lebanese citizens. Limiting the spread and impact of the coronavirus in Lebanon requires ensuring that everyone can access testing and treatment centres. By providing only financial assistance, the EU is fulfilling part of its role in Lebanon. Money on its own cannot appease the unregistered refugees’ fear of running into legal trouble if they no longer have valid residency permits nor will it provide them with the needed assurance that they will get free medical help if they experience COVID-19-like symptoms. In the light of the terrible economic conditions, the pandemic could also have negative effects on social and political stability, creating conditions for unrest which can become independent conflict accelerants between the host and refugee communities. Given the current conditions, Lebanese and Syrians can’t put up with the situation much longer as they have no money nor jobs to sustain themselves. At this point, people are more scared of starvation than they are of the virus. This state of uncertainty will definitely lead to a lack of conformity and increase in tension between both the Lebanese and the Syrians who will be fighting for their survival. The main problem is the lack of needed arrangement and conditionality attributed to the dispersion of financial assistance that need to be complemented with a set of guidelines and recommendations to the Lebanese government. In the current situation, adopting the patterns of the past holds huge risks and dangers. By turning a blind eye to the seriousness of the situation in refugee camps and delegating responsibility to the international organizations, the Lebanese government is putting the health and well-being of its citizens at stake. Refugee assistance is no longer a political consideration, but rather a question of ensuring the protection of an entire population from a virus that does not differentiate between nationals and refugees.

Josiane Matar is a visiting researcher for Sine Qua Non.


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