Rights Groups Concerned for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon amid Coronavirus Pandemic


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AMMAN, JORDAN - Advocacy groups say Lebanon has put into place restrictions that discriminate against Syrian refugees as it battles the coronavirus. Human rights groups say the restrictions do not apply to Lebanese citizens and could both undermine the country's public health response and endanger the refugees' health.

Lebanon is under a daily 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew to fight the spread of the coronavirus. The infection has sickened 541 people to date and left nearly 20 others dead there, according to the latest figures from the health ministry. The government is allowing residents to take trips outside the home, but only for medical emergencies, food and medicine.

Human Rights Watch says even before the nationwide curfew was announced, a number of municipalities implemented what it calls "discriminatory restrictions" on refugees. Nadia Hardman, an HRW refugee rights researcher, said these limits include extra curfews.

"You have these additional restrictions on Syrian refugees: only allowing movement between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. In informal tented settlements, only one person, possibly two, have to be appointed to go out and get supplies for the rest of the informal tented settlement. In other places this must be done in coordination with the municipality. In other instances, fines also and confiscation of ID," said Hardman.

So far, no coronavirus cases have been formally registered among the refugee population; but, the refugees themselves are raising concerns about their ability to access health care. The refugees also say they lack information on how to protect themselves against infection. Hardman argues that limiting the spread and impact of the coronavirus in Lebanon requires ensuring that everyone can access testing and treatment centers.

"What is needed right now is equal access to the national health system. There is a hotline to call the ministry of public health that will direct you to the testing center, but we have concerns that the center may not be free," said the researcher.  "There needs to be like an upscale initiative to promise that there will be no consequence for seeking medical help. Because as soon as you start treating this population differently, which sows anxiety and fear, underlying xenophobia - how are you going to encourage people to get tested?"

Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world: one in four people there is a refugee, according to the United Nations. Many of the Syrian refugees live in sprawling and squalid informal tent camps that resemble shanty towns, particularly in the Bekaa Valley. About 40 percent of the estimated 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon are not registered with the United Nations and so are not eligible for cash assistance or food parcels. Until recently, many could not receive medical care.

The U.N. refugee agency says it will cover most - if not all - medical cost for refugees with the coronavirus and have begun an awareness campaign. Still, advocates say that the tens of thousands of unregistered Syrian refugees could remain vulnerable.