While the Lebanese government has so far managed to keep infections down, the pandemic has exposed barriers that refugees face in the country. Despite hosting the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide, Lebanon is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. An estimated 73 percent of Syrian refugees in the country lack legal status, limiting their access to essential services including health care, and rendering them vulnerable to arrest and detention. Detention conditions have repeatedly been flagged by international observers as unacceptable, and in 2019, authorities forcibly deported more than 2,500 people back to Syria.
The fact that many refugees have been unable to reside legally in the country has given rise to significant concerns during the crisis. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, any person experiencing symptoms has been required to contact a national health ministry hotline for advice on testing and treatment. Both UNHCR (responsible for Syrian refugees) and UNRWA (responsible for Palestinian refugees), who are responsible for covering refugee health care, have said that they will only cover testing and treatment costs if the refugee has first contacted this hotline and followed instructions. However, many refugees have expressed fears of using the hotline and providing their personal information—largely due to their concern that their illegal status will be reported, and that they will subsequently face detention and deportation. The lack of a “firewall” between health care and immigration authorities during the pandemic, as witnessed in numerous other countries, threatens both refugees’ health—and the health of the wider community. As Human Rights Watch stated on 22 April, “The authorities should proactively reassure refugees that they will not face retribution or stigmatization if they seek testing or treatment for COVID-19.”
According to the Access Center for Human Rights, some municipalities (particularly those affiliated to political parties that oppose the presence of Syrian refugees in the country) have also deported Syrians under the pretext of combatting the virus. Amongst those deported have been several families who were removed after purchasing medicines. In one case, a boy in Mount Lebanon Governorate was followed home after purchasing pain relief. Volunteers overseeing movement restrictions raised fears that he may be suffering from the virus, and demanded the municipality deport his family. At least nine refugee camps have also been raided by security forces, searching registration papers and residency permits.
As of 29 May, a handful of Syrian refugees in the country had tested positive: 15 cases were detected in the village of Majdal Anjar in Bekaa, close to the Syrian border; 10 Palestinian refugees have also contracted the virus.
According to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, a circular issued on 1 May stipulated that only Lebanese nationals stranded overseas were permitted to return to Lebanon during the crisis. Meanwhile, Palestinian refugees who usually reside in the country but who were stranded outside were barred from returning. The rights group stated in a press release, “The circular includes heinous racial discrimination against Palestinian refugees holding Lebanese travel documents. The holder of this document should receive similar treatment to the Lebanese citizen in cases of deportation. In addition, preventing Palestinian refugees who only hold Lebanese travel documents from traveling constitutes a flagrant violation of their right to freedom of travel and movement.”
- Global Detention Project, “Immigration Detention in Lebanon: 2018 Update,” February 2018, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/middle-east/lebanon
- A. Sewell and K. Chehayeb, “Palestinians in Lebanon Say Coronavirus Help is Too Little, Too Late,” The New Humanitarian, 27 May 2020, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/feature/2020/05/27/Lebanon-Palestine-coronavirus-aid
- Human Rights Watch, “Lebanon, Events of 2019,” 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/lebanon
- Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, “SACD Analysis: Impact of Covid-19 on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” Medium, 25 May 2020, https://medium.com/@SACD/sacd-analysis-impact-of-covid-19-on-syrian-refugees-in-lebanon-fd328b9f87f1
- Access Center for Human Rights, “Lebanon: Investigating the Situation of Syrian Refugees Under Covid-19 Pandemic,” April 2020, https://www.achrights.org/ar/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/COVID-19-Report-Translated-edited.pdf
- Human Rights Watch, “Lebanon’s Refugee Restrictions Could Harm Everyone’s Health,” 22 April 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/22/lebanons-refugee-restrictions-could-harm-everyones-health
- OCHA, “COVID-19 Response – Lebanon Bi-Monthly Situation Report (29 May 2020),” 1 June 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/lebanon/covid-19-response-lebanon-bi-monthly-situation-report-29-may-2020
- Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, “Heinous Racism Prevents Palestinian Refugees with Lebanese Travel Documents from Returning to Lebanon,” 5 May 2020, https://euromedmonitor.org/en/article/3532/Heinous-Racism-Prevents-Palestinian-Refugees-with-Lebanese-Travel-Documents-from-Returning-to-Lebanon-
- Syrian refugees outside their tents, in the Bekaa Valley town of Saadnayel, east Lebanon (Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, “SACD Analysis: Impact of Covid-19 on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” Medium, 25 May 2020, https://medium.com/@SACD/sacd-analysis-impact-of-covid-19-on-syrian-refugees-in-lebanon-fd328b9f87f1)