Palestinian, Syrian refugees in Lebanon at increased risk for coronavirus

Syrian refugees in a building under construction they have been using as a shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (AP)

The Lebanese government has declared the state of general mobilization, as coronavirus cases jump to over 120. Palestinian and Syrian refugees, often living in difficult and unsanitary conditions, with little access to healthcare, remain the weakest link as the infection progresses in Lebanon.

The Lebanese government proclaimed on Sunday a state of general mobilization until the end of March. The country is in in lockdown with businesses, banks, industrial plants, airports and seaports closed. The latest measures aim to contain the epidemic that has so far infected 120 people and killed three.

Abou Hamza is a Syrian refugee living in the populous suburbs of the capital city Beirut. “I make 15 dollars per day as a painter. I haven’t worked in a week. Fear of the coronavirus epidemic has further worsened an already bad economy,” said the father of four who admits he is more concerned with his family going hungry than the contagion.

Abou Hamza’s statement is echoed by other Syrians and Palestinians who have found refuge in Lebanon. The UN Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) figures put the Syrian refugee population at over 900,000, although experts believe this number to be closer to 1.5 million. At least 20 percent of them live in haphazard camps with little access to sewage, water or electricity. The other 80 percent live in crowded housings, in North Lebanon and Balback-Hermel areas, which are considered as the most deprived in Lebanon. According to the UNHCR, 73 percent of Syrian refugees and living under the poverty line, with less than $3.80 a day.

Additionally, Lebanon is home to about 200,000 Palestinian refugees, whose situation does not fare much better. They live in 12 refugee camps, plagued by poor housing conditions, unemployment, poverty and violence.

Spokesperson for the UNHCR Lisa Abou Khaled says there have been no reported cases of coronavirus among refugees so far and that the UNHCR has launched an awareness campaign in refugee communities.

In Palestinian camps, Dr. Samer Shehade from the Red Crescent underlines that overpopulation and poor infrastructure make the situation very difficult in the backdrop of the current coronavirus crisis.

“Refugees have no access to the Lebanese social healthcare. We have five hospitals in the camps, but we do not have the capacity to treat coronavirus cases, which require special measures such as isolation,” he said.

Palestinian refugee assistance in Lebanon has been in decline for the last few years. Since 2018, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine in the Neat East (UNRWA) has been facing its worst financial crisis, with the Trump Administration cutting American funding.

So far the organization has raised only $300 million of this year’s regional budget, estimated to $1.4 billion. In Lebanon, its capacity to provide direct aid in Palestinian camps is limited to 61,000 individuals, although over 65 percent of Palestinian refugees live under the poverty line.

UNRWA spokesperson Hoda Samra believes the number of people living in poverty to be nonetheless much higher.

“The corona crisis has also increased UNRWA’s financial needs,” she said.

Despite the COVID-19 contagion, it appears that, for now at least, the larger refugee population will remain forgotten in Lebanon.

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Last Update: 18:39 KSA 21:39 - GMT 18:39
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