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Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon Face COVID-19 Alone

Virus could kill thousands of vulnerable lives

Hala Nouhad Nasreddine

Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon Face COVID-19 Alone (Promo)

of Palestinian refugees are susceptible to COVID-19 infection

As of October 5, 2020, the total number of COVID-19 cases among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon was 1,282, with 478 active cases and 31 deaths, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Based on these numbers, the General Director of the Rafic Hariri Government Hospital, Dr. Firas Al-Abiad, tweeted that the COVID-19 mortality rate among Palestinians in Lebanon is 2.4%; "more than double Lebanon’s 1% rate."

At the very least, 36,000 Palestinian refugees will need intensive care out of a total 224,901, which includes camp residents and Palestinian refugees from Syria, according to the document. Given that the mortality risk is higher for those aged 70 and over, about 10,825 Palestinians are already vulnerable.

Dr. Hassan Mneimneh, the Committee’s Chairman and former education minister, is highly concerned about the difficulty of maintaining social distancing and limiting the spread of the virus. “Social distancing is impossible due to overcrowdedness at the camps,” Mneimneh said. In Burj El-Barajneh camp, for example, population density is 80,000 people/km2, meaning that camp residents share their rooms with at least five and up to ten others.

Conditions are similar in Ain El-Helweh camp, where seven to eight people live in small two-bedroom apartments, according to Adnan Al-Rifai, a member of the Popular Committee.

“The danger is overwhelming and frightening, and the prospect of a virus spread in the camps is truly catastrophic [...] our medical and healthcare facilities are limited," he told ARIJ.

Predictions for COVID-19 Spread in the Camps

10% of suspected 40,000

will test positive, according to projections by the Central Health Crisis Management Unit. In other words, 40,000 camp residents will be afflicted by the virus.

The Central Health Crisis Management Unit

A unit headed by UNRWA, specifically focused on medical assistance, which includes various Palestinian factions and committees as well as international and civil organizations working in Palestinian camps.

Inability to maintain social distancing
1 in 4 persons moving freely
1 in 8 persons moving freely

The Lebanese American University’s predicted scenarios

Stakeholders’ Position on UNRWA’s performance

Palestinian camp residents have been complaining about the absence of preventive and precautionary measures in place to combat the spread of the virus. This is especially important given the threat of a second wave, which would negatively affect the already overcrowded camps whose residents are denied their most basic of rights.

The UNRWA is the agency responsible for the Palestinian camps, yet has been slow in responding to the current crisis under the pretext of a lack of funding and expertise. As for the Lebanese state, it is involved only at the security level, and has largely abandoned all humanitarian or legal obligations towards the refugees. Between the negligence and disinterest of the Lebanese government and the feebleness of the UNRWA, Palestinian refugees are left with minimal assistance.

On March 13, the government requested that international organisations provide healthcare, medical assistance, and implement measures and controls to limit the spread of the virus at the refugee camps. This is in accordance with the current law governing its work, specifically Article 123, which outlines the Ministry of Health’s responsibilities.

“UNRWA did not take responsibility until we put great pressure on them,” explains Ahmed Abdel-Hadi, General Secretary of the Palestinian Forces Alliance. He also announced the suspension of their membership in the Health Crisis Management Unit.

Head of the Refugee Rights Defense Unit No. 302 Ali Hweidi, says UNRWA used the financial deficit as an excuse even though it was possible to resort to other solutions to collect the funds needed to help combat COVID-19.

Secretary of the Fatah Movement, Major General Fathi Abu Al-Ardat, on the other hand, believes that UNRWA has improved its stance, following the opening of a quarantine center in Siblin, in cooperation with Doctors Without Borders.

“This was the beginning of UNRWA’s involvement in light of U.S. funding cuts, which constitute a third of their budget,” he told ARIJ.

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Different Circumstances in Different Camps

Rashidiyeh camp is inhabited by 10,000 people, and the safety measures there are better than others, according to its residents, including Walaa Taleb.

In Nahr Al-Bared camp, the youth have volunteered to conduct sterilization and disinfection campaigns.

“UNRWA does nothing at all in Nahr Al-Bared," Ziad Junaid, a camp resident, told ARIJ.

As for Ain El-Helweh camp, which has a population of 36,220 in an area less than 2km2, it was business as usual. The camp continued to host residents from neighboring areas during the general lockdown, according to resident Izzidin Yassin.

In response to the criticism, the Head of UNRWA’s Health Department, Abdel-Hakim Shana'a, insists, "we sterilize all our centers, but not the camps and streets because a study by the Lebanese Medical Association indicated that sterilizing the camps and streets would be harmful for the environment, so we chose not to implement it.”

In an interview with ARIJ, the UNRWA spokesperson in Lebanon, Hoda Samra, outlined steps taken by the agency to confront the pandemic in coordination with the Lebanese Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization:

1. Implementing awareness campaigns at all UNRWA’s centers and on social media.
2. Securing sterilizing and sanitation equipment in the agency’s clinics and reducing the number of routine visits as well as prioritizing urgent cases.
3. Disseminating the Ministry of Health’s contact information to inform them of potential or suspected cases.
4. Commiting to financing PCR tests for all suspected cases.
5. Opening a quarantine center in Siblin, which can accommodate 100 cases, and working towards equipping two centers in Ain El-Helweh and Al-Bass camps.

But due to the delay in opening the first center, criticism continued to mount, and the number of cases continued to rise. In response, Shana'a affirmed, “akin to all the governments around the world, we were not equipped to respond to COVID-19.”

“Any case inside any of the camps will lead to an immediate medical alert, as it could potentially cause a health disaster due to the overcrowdedness,” he added.

Shana'a told ARIJ that the lack of funding is not an obstacle on the medical and health front, and UNRWA will pay the costs of testing for suspected or potential cases at the approved cost.

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The Ministry of Health Pressures UNRWA

“The injustices and failure to support our Palestinian brothers through UNRWA will not be forgiven by history,” declared the Lebanese Minister of Public Health, Hamad Hassan, after cases were confirmed in the Palestinian camp of Galil (Baalbek). As a result of this pressure, the quarantine center was opened and liaisons were appointed by the Ministry to attend the Health Committee’s meetings.

However, the Ministry of Health’s response remains confined to verbal support and coordination with the UNRWA but does not extend to providing preventive materials such as sterilizers and masks.

Refugees’ Economic Conditions: “Our People are Struggling”

The Ministry of Labor’s procedures towards non-Lebanese workers coupled with the collapse of local currency has left Palestinian workers, most of which are daily laborers, in economic and financial turmoil. According to Al-Rifai, the implications of COVID-19 have raised the unemployment rate amongst Palestinan workers from 60% to 90%.

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Financial Relief and the Factions’ Conflicts with UNRWA

Palestinian factions have voiced their disappointment and discontent with the UNRWA regarding the financial relief and compensation it provided refugees. Initially, the agency seeked to confine this financial assistance to the refugees under the “Social Affairs” programme. However, representatives of the diffrenet Palestinian groups rejected the UNRWA’s proposal due to the deteriorating financial circumstances of all Palestinians. Additionally, the “social affairs'' program is financially sustainable as it is an existing and continuing program in and of itself, and the UNRWA’s data is not precise which will hinder the agency’s capacity to target the refugees who need it most.

When Palestinian factions and representatives had finally unified their position on the need to provide aid to all refugees, UNRWA was pressured and therefore able to secure additional funding. This prompted Palestinian factions to question why UNRWA did not allocate or secure additional funding as the crisis began to emerge. Al-Rifai told ARIJ that “UNRWA has formally requested the factions secure additional funding, and this means they are abdicating their responsibilities as the agency's director and staff are paid to work for the benefit of the refugees.”

According to Abdel-Hadi and Hweidi, the Agency was able to secure up to $5 million worth of funds. This amounts to 112,000 Lebanese pounds per person, which is equivalent to $28 (using the rate 1 USD = 4,000 LBP) . Hweidi considers this aid as “a very small amount in light of the currency’s collapse”, especially if the payment is not periodic. Consequently, the concerned parties demanded that this aid be frequent to alleviate the severity of the crisis and revive the camps.

Eventually and after months of delay, UNRWA began to distribute the promised aid. However, this process grinded to a halt as a result of the failure to adhere to the necessary preventive measures. At first, the process was characterized by a systematic administrative defect that was considered insulting and humiliating to the Palestinians. Consequently, the agency began working on a new electronic mechanism to be launched on June 3, 2020, but this was suspended on June 10 because it needed further adjustments to be operational.

Al-Rifai believes that the reason behind the operational difficulties is that the actual number of refugees has exceeded UNRWA’s expectations and calculations. This could be because most statistics do not represent the number of Palestinias for political reasons, while Samra claims that the main reason is “chatter amongst refugees about violations in the first phase of aid distribution, specifically the allocation of aid to those not entitled to it (possibly to some residents abroad). This forced UNRWA to suspend the distribution process and to search for additional ways to verify the identities of the beneficiaries.”

However, this delay has resulted in the financial aid’s devaluation after the exchange rate dropped to 1 USD per 10,000 LBP in late June and early July 2020.

According to Hweidi, UNRWA excluded approximately 60,000 refugees registered in the Social Safety Network from this relief; 28,000 displaced Palestinian refugees from Syria, 25,000 refugees not registered in UNRWA's records, and 15,000 Palestinian refugees without identity papers. However, other travelers have received this assistance using their residency cards, in addition to tens of thousands of Lebanese people who possess these subsistence cards, according to Abdel-Hadi.

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Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon:

There are contradictory studies and reports on the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

According to UNICEF, the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is around 192,000 (174,422 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and 17,706 Palestinian refugees from Syria). According to UNRWA’s website, about 475,000 refugees are registered with UNRWA, and approximately 180,000 of them are registered for the residency purpose. This means that there are about 295,000 refugees in Lebanon who benefit from UNRWA’s services, which contradicts the committee’s aforementioned figures.

Surprisingly, the numbers given in the latest report produced by the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee during the COVID-19 crisis were also different than those in its 2017 report.

Currently 275,171 refugees
Previously 114,206 refugees

Population per km2
Total Population

Palestinian Refugees from Syria

According to a field study conducted on Palestinian asylum seekers from Syria in Lebanon between 2013 and 2018, 31,000 Palestinian refugees have moved from Syria to Lebanon. However, the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee estimated their number at 18,601.

The field study denotes average family size as 5.6 members. This is greater than the size of Palestinian refugee families in Lebanon, which accounts to 4.5 individuals per family. Many families share houses in order to split the rent between two or three families per house.

According to UNICEF, "89% of Palestinian refugees from Syria suffer from destitution ($6.8 per person, per day)”. Additionally, 9% of them live in extreme poverty ($2.4 per person, per day) and only 6% of them live with food security. On the other hand, 63% of them suffer from food insecurity, and it is expected that this percentage has increased during the current economic crisis.

In contrast to the increase in the number of Palestinian refugees, UNRWA’s services are shrinking after the suspension of U.S. funding in 2018, which contributed to a financial deficit valued at $1 billion.

The new UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, has since attempted to attract more funding from the international community. However, funding and aid levels have not yet met the level needed.

Ultimately, the Palestinian refugee is the one paying the price of these political disputes. These refugees, according to Al-Rifai, are “dead on both sides; between health and hunger! In Palestine, they kill our children with a cannon, a tank, and an aircraft, and in Lebanon they kill us with health and education."

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