Lebanon excludes refugees from coronavirus response at its own peril

Lebanon excludes refugees from coronavirus response at its own peril
Comment: The Covid-19 era marks a new chapter in the erosion of refugee rights in Lebanon, and policymaking that excludes their access to protection and services, writes Tamirace Fakhoury.
7 min read
08 May, 2020
Refugees in camps and informal settlements have faced a 'crisis upon crisis scenario' [Getty/TNA illustration]
Last April, on Palm Sunday, a Syrian refugee set himself on fire in East Lebanon as his landlord threatened to evict him.

Earlier that week, a Lebanese citizen in the southern city of Sidon also sought to light himself on fire, as he was prompted to pay a fine after disrespecting the state health emergency and keeping his business open.

Amid a Covid-19 shutdown compounded by an ailing economy and scarce jobs, livelihoods have deteriorated for both host and refugee communities. Still, refugees have been Lebanon's silent spectators ever since the outbreak of the country's 2019 protests and the coronavirus pandemic.

Lebanon hosts more than 1 million Syrian refugees and about 475,075 registered Palestinian refugees. But the political elite has hardly referred to them in the last months, except to reiterate the narrative of a host state under massive strain, or to refer to limited international aid and insufficient burden-sharing.

In the context of displacement from Syria since 2011, some politicians have recently reaffirmed their intent to accelerate repatriation, blaming them partially for the country's financial crash.

In this climate, what role do refugees play in Lebanon's Covid-19 health plan? Do they figure at all in its national policy frame, or are they considered the 
external and invisible other?

Displacement from Syria and Lebanon's response

Long forgotten from Lebanon's policymaking, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has meant a particularly precarious trajectory for Lebanon's refugees. As the Lebanese state does not guarantee either their access to protection, healthcare or documentation, they have experienced what Baban, Ilcan & Rygiel frame as complex "pathways to precarity". 

As many of them live in overcrowded spaces, they have not had the luxury of home isolation, social distancing or confinement

Refugees live in a state of limbo regarding their access to services and healthcare, even under normal circumstances. Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 convention. Its refugee regime, described as informalised and incoherent, is reliant on international actors' funding for facilitating refugee access to services and protection.

It's safe to say here that policymakers have long forsaken their responsibility to develop an asylum regime which safeguards refugee rights, despite decades of UNHCR advocacy. Instead, the Lebanese state regards refugees as guests or displaced individuals. Recently this terminology has been recast. Refugees are now temporarily displaced individuals.

In an ambivalent policy context, displaced Syrians struggle with multiple forms of vulnerability. Many refugees choose to embark on secondary migration journeys or have returned to Syria. International actors have decried the so-called "voluntary return" operations organised by the Lebanese state for violating the conditions of voluntary, safe and sustainable returns.

Read more: How Tripoli emerged as the epicentre of Lebanon's national crisis

Evictions, restrictions on employment, and municipal curfews have added an element of "coercion" to these returns. Refugees have had to contemplate alternatives that involved at times dangerous onward journeys or perilous returns. With underfunded regional responses and limited resettlement options, they saw their options for a better life dwindle.

With the outbreak of Lebanon's protests in October 2019, demonstrators highlighted intersectional struggles ranging from women's rights and LGBTQ rights, to refugees and migrant workers' rights. This protest movement, commonly framed as the 'Thawra" or "Revolution", is credited with unpacking the manifold vices of Lebanon's sectarian politics.

Refugees were mostly invisible actors in those protests. Many feared engagement and visibility as they had no legal status and could not afford to be arrested. In 2018, the UNHCR reported that more than 70 percent of surveyed Syrian respondents above 15 do not have legal residency.

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Despite this, the 2019 protests adopted refugees issues as key among their demands. Activists criticised the state's practices that exacerbate xenophobia, and hostility towards the other. Key politicians calling for the rash return of refugees were particularly targeted. In this scene, refugees and migrants felt emboldened to stage some small-scale protests. Criticising shrinking funds and deteriorating livelihoods, some refugees started for example a daily sit-in at the UNHCR in Tripoli.

In the last two months, economic livelihoods have worsened, and the Lebanese lira is witnessing a vertiginous descent into devaluation. Refugees who watched Lebanon's protests with much vigilance have been thrown into more vulnerability. They have also found themselves outside of Lebanon's Covid-19 national policy frame.

Refugees and Covid-19 policymaking

Lebanon's newly formed Council of Ministers has hardly addressed the fate of refugees in the disruptive pandemic, or included them in any of its policy priorities.

As many of them live in overcrowded spaces, they have not had the luxury of home isolation, social distancing or confinement. The Lebanese state's key policy stance revolving around "staying home" does not apply to many of them.

There are no consistent guidelines as to how refugees can access hospitals or benefit from health services in emergencies

Moreover, their right to access hospitals in times of national emergencies is ill-defined and disputed. No consistent legal or policy codes guide their access to services, and often, informal actors, whether landlords, landowners, or influential power brokers, facilitate or bar their access to local services. Their capacity to benefit from services is dictated by various labelsi.e. if they are registered as refugees by the UN Refugee Agency, if they are undocumented or if they have sought residency in Lebanon after having found a local sponsor.

In this context, refugees who live either in camps, informal settlements or in private accommodation have faced a "crisis upon crisis scenario". Dwindling international funding, and dried up economic reserves in the country mean they must either rely on their meagre savings or on cash assistance.

Given heightened concerns that Covid-19 could spread fast in overcrowded settlements, aid agencies, NGOs and the EU and UNHCR have rushed to provide aid and fund isolation centres.

Some NGOs have launched awareness raising campaigns about hygiene and the importance of handwashing in refugee camps. Others have distributed disinfectant, water, and soap.

In coordination with the Ministry of Health, the UNHCR has provided funding to equip hospitals by adding beds and ICUs. Yet aid agencies, practitioners and academics have warned against grim scenarios in which displaced individuals would be discriminated against in hospitals treating Covid-19 cases, or simply denied treatment if they are undocumented.

Indeed, there are no consistent guidelines as to how refugees can access hospitals or benefit from health services in emergencies. Displaced individuals who are undocumented have an acute fear of being detained or evicted in such situations. 

Shrinking rights and limited mobility

To make matters worse, the Lebanese state has buttressed its tools of surveillance over refugees. Long subject to illegal curfews enforced arbitrarily by municipalities, refugees have seen their mobility become even tighter.

It is reported that more than 
at least 18 Lebanese municipalities have tightened curfews against refugees. In some municipalities, refugee mobility has only been allowed between 9am-1pm, raising fears that refugees would not be able to seek medical assistance outside these hours.

There are also reports of the municipal police threatening to confiscate their residency if they do not abide by such measures. Journalists and human rights practitioners have decried these restrictions not only for infringing on individual rights, but also for lacking a rational explanation as to how they could counter the spread of the pandemic.

Refugees as agents rather than passive recipients of aid

Despite these shrinking spaces of mobility and rights, refugees have displayed a remarkable spirit of agency. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh's ethnographic work takes us on trip into the Baddawi camp, showing how Palestinian refugees have crafted "refugee-led local responses" and spaces of refugee-to-refugee humanitarianism to counter the pandemic, and provide health services to each other.

In the Baddawi camp, refugees have hung posters and translated Covid-19 information to Arabic, and carried out awareness raising campaigns on social media. They have also collected donations for those less fortunate residents of the camp. In this vein, as she frames it, refugees play the role of hosts, and seek to craft their own safety nets.

Another chapter of refugee fragility?

The Covid-19 era marks a new chapter in the erosion of refugee rights in Lebanon and in their exclusion from national policymaking frames defining the right to protection and access to services. In critical times, however, "biosecurity threats" afflicting nation-states such as the Covid-19 pandemic do not distinguish between citizens and the external "others".

Notions of national security and border-making must be redefined. In such turning points, it is no longer about we and the other, or about our borders versus the outside world. In this case, boundaries vanish, and we are all faced with our human predicament.

Tamirace Fakhoury is associate Professor of Political Science and director of the Institute of Social Justice and Conflict Resolution, Lebanese American University.

Follow her on Twitter: @Tamyfakhoury

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.