of Palestinian refugees are susceptible to COVID-19 infection according to a new Lebanese government report prepared by the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee.
As of October 5, 2020, the total number of COVID-19 cases among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon was 1282, with 478 active cases and 31 deaths, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). Based on these numbers, the General Director of the Rafic Hariri Government Hospital in Beirut, Dr. Firas Al-Abiad, tweeted that COVID-19 mortality rate among Palestinians in Lebanon is 2.4%; "more than double Lebanon’s 1% rate."
At the very least, 36000 Palestinian refugees will need hospital intensive care admission out of a total 224901 camp residents including Palestinian refugees who newly arrived from Syria, according to the document. Given that the mortality risk is higher for those aged 70 and over, about 10825 Palestinians are already vulnerable.
Dr. Hassan Mneimneh, the Committee’s Chairman and former Lebanese 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 overcrowded refugees camps,” Mneimneh said. In Burj El-Barajneh camp (in Beirut’s suburb), for example, population density is 80000 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 (30 Km from Beirut near Saida), where seven to eight people live in small two-bedroom apartments, according to Adnan Al-Rifai, member of the Local Popular Committee that governs the refugee camp and the affairs of its inhabitants.
“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.
Palestinian refugees will test positive meaning that 4000 camp residents will be afflicted by the virus.
The Lebanese American University’s predicted scenarios
Palestinian camps 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 rights.
The UNRWA is the agency responsible for the managing Palestinian refugee camps, yet the organisation has been slow in responding to the current crisis claiming it lacks expertise and the necessary funding.
As for the Lebanese State, it’s role is limited to securing the camps, having largely abandoned its humanitarian and moral obligations towards the refugees. Between the negligence and disinterest of the Lebanese government and the poor UNRWA handling of the crisis, Palestinian refugees are left with minimal assistance.
On March 13, the Lebanese government called on the international organisations to provide healthcare, medical assistance, and implement measures and controls to limit the spread of the virus in refugee camps. This is in accordance with the current law governing the ministry’s work, specifically Article 123, which outlines its responsibilities.
“UNRWA did not assume its responsibility until we exerted pressure on them,” explains Ahmed Abdel-Hadi, the General Secretary of the Palestinian Forces Alliance. He also announced the suspension of Alliance’s participation in the Health Crisis Management Unit.
Head of the Refugee Rights Defense Unit No. 302 Ali Hweidi, says UNRWA used its financial troubles as an excuse, even though it was possible to resort to other means to secure the funds needed to help combat COVID-19.
Fatah Movement’s secretary general at the camp, Major General Fathi Abu Al-Ardat, on the other hand, believes that UNRWA has improved its stance, following the opening of a quarantine facility in ‘Siblin’ near the city of Saida, in cooperation with Doctors Without Borders.
“This was the beginning of UNRWA’s involvement despite the U.S. funding cuts, which constitute a third of the organisation’s budget,” he told ARIJ.
Rashidiyeh camp (South of the city of Tyre), is home to 10000 Palestinian refugees, and the safety measures there were better, according to its residents, including Walaa Taleb.
In Nahr Al-Bared camp (in northern Lebanon), the youth have volunteered to conduct sterilization and disinfection campaigns in their efforts to help.
“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 36220 in an area less than 2 square kilometre, it was business as usual. The camp shops continued to welcome residents from neighbouring areas despite the nationwide 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 fight the pandemic in coordination with the Lebanese Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization through:
1. Implementing awareness campaigns at all UNRWA’s centers and via social media.
2. Securing, sterilizing and sanitating equipment in the agency’s clinics and reducing the number of routine visits as well as prioritizing urgent cases.
3. Disseminating the (Lebanese) Ministry of Health’s contact information to inform refugees where to report potential or suspected cases.
4. Committing 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 Covid isolation centers, criticism continued, and the number of cases continued to rise. In response, Shana'a confirmed that, “like all the governments around the world, we were not ready 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 over crowdedness there”, he added.
Shana'a told ARIJ that lack of funding is not an obstacle on the medical and health front, and UNRWA will pay the costs of testing suspected cases at the approved national cost.
“UNRWA’s historic crime of failing to support our Palestinian brothers will not be forgiven” 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 liaison(officers) 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 to the camps.
The Lebanese Ministry of Labor’s rules towards non-Lebanese workers coupled with the collapse of local Lebanese currency’s value, has left Palestinian workers, most of whom are daily laborers, in economic and financial tightrope. According to Al-Rifai, the implications of COVID-19 have raised the unemployment rate amongst Palestinian workers from 60% to 90%.
Palestinian political and military groups in those camps have voiced their disappointment and discontent with UNRWA’s financial relief and compensation that were made available for the refugees. Initially, the agency tried to limit this financial assistance to the refugees covered by the “Social Affairs” program. However, representatives of the different Palestinian groups rejected UNRWA’s proposal due to the worsening financial circumstances of all Palestinians and not just a small group included in “Social Affairs” program. Additionally, the “social affairs'' program was an established assistance program and does not include those who need help most since the start of the Covid pandemic.
Once all factions spoke with one voice calling for the need to provide aid to all refugees, UNRWA felt pressured and was able to act to secure additional funds. This prompted Palestinian factions to question why UNRWA did not allocate or secure additional funding at the start of the crisis. Al-Rifai told ARIJ that “UNRWA has formally requested that the Palestinian factions secure additional funding, which is a sign that the agency’s director and his staff were renouncing their responsibilities to work to support the refugees.”
According to Abdel-Hadi and Hweidi, the Agency was able to secure up to $5 million worth of funds. This amounts to 112000 Lebanese pounds one off payment per refugee, which is equivalent to $28 (using the rate 1 USD = 4,000 LBP) . Hweidi considers this “a very small amount in light of Lebanon’s currency collapse”, especially if the payments were not made regularly. Therefore, the Palestinian leadership in the camps pressed UNRWA to make this financial help frequent to alleviate the severity of the crisis and revive the situation in 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 plagued 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 Palestinians (in Lebanon) for political reasons, while Samra claims that the main reason is “the stories 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 ex- camp residents living abroad currently). 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 10,000 LBP for every $1 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 non resident Palestinian (working abroad) 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.
There are contradictory studies and reports determining the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
According to UNICEF, the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is around 192000, (174422 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and 17706 Palestinian refugees from Syria).
According to UNRWA’s website, about 475000 refugees are registered with UNRWA, and approximately 180000 of them are registered for the residency purpose. This means that there are about 295000 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.
The Dialogue Committee list them as follow:
Currently: 275171 refugees
Previously: 114706 refugees
According to a field study conducted on Palestinian asylum seekers from Syria in Lebanon between 2013 and 2018, there are 31000 Palestinian refugees who moved from Syria to Lebanon. However, the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee estimated their number at 18601.
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 household.
According to UNICEF, "89% of Palestinian refugees from Syria suffer from destitution (living on $6.8 per person, per day)”. Additionally, 9% of those live in extreme poverty (on $2.4 per person, per day) and only 6% of live with food security. On the other hand, 63% of the Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria, 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 have been shrinking since the suspension of U.S. funding in 2018, which contributed to a financial deficit estimated at $1 billion.
The new UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, has since attempted to secure more funding from the international community. However, funding and aid levels have not yet met the Palestinian refugees’ need.
Ultimately, the Palestinian refugee is the one paying the price of these political disputes. These refugees, according to Al-Rifai, are “dead any way, either from health threats or hunger! In Palestine, they kill our children with a cannon, a tank, and an aircraft. In Lebanon they kill them by denying them access to health and education."