Guest post by Reeda Al Sabri Halawi. Reeda is a PhD candidate at Leiden University, the Netherlands. This post is part of our new themed series on border control and Covid-19.

Amidst the fast-growing development of the new coronavirus pandemic, or what has been referred to as ‘Covid-19' by the World Health Organization (WHO), governments worldwide have expressed their concerns about their ability to limit the expansion of the virus. Entire communities, cities and countries went into a lockdown and home quarantine, with limited opportunity for exercise or any other outdoor activity, and with significant sanitary and health measures to prevent the spread of the infection.

In Lebanon, the government has been taking precautionary measures to limit the spread of this deadly virus by shutting down the country, closing the Beirut Rafiq Hariri airport, and crafting a national health plan of action. The Ministry of Public Health established a hotline to report coronavirus cases, and created several awareness campaigns to flag the importance of personal hygiene in preventing infections. It also set up special units for the treatment of the disease in all hospitals across the country, provided medical equipment necessary for treatment and personal protection, conducted free PCR tests to citizens in rural and urban areas, and mandated the use of face masks and social distancing measures in public spaces.

The Lebanese Government, which for years now has turned a blind eye to the rights of refugees regarding access to healthcare and poor sanitary conditions inside refugee camps, had initially ignored the calls for the protection of refugees during the pandemic. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has been the main international actor in charge of ensuring that the rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are upheld, in the absence of action by the state. Since the beginning of the pandemic, UNRWA has taken measures to protect Palestinian refugees located in several camps across Lebanon. The measures varied from raising awareness about the virus and the need for proper sanitation, to requesting social distancing and providing online education for school children. In mid-March an initiative was set up to promote a collaboration between the Lebanese Ministry of Health, the Lebanese Red Cross, UNRWA and the Palestinians’ representatives to prevent the spread of the virus inside the refugee camps.

In April 2020, UNRWA had to close down its offices in Beirut due to coronavirus. This unexpected turn of events disrupted the collaboration between key stakeholders and initiatives to address and prevent infections in refugee camps were largely abandoned. Furthermore, without the UNRWA there was no guarantee of protection for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon amidst a humanitarian crisis.

Against this background, for the first time in the history of the country, the Lebanese Government acted upon the right to healthcare of Palestinian refugees. On April 24th, the Lebanese Minister of Public Health Dr. Hamad Hassan, together with the Ambassador of Palestine in Lebanon, visited the Palestinian refugee camp Al Jaleel located in the region of Ba’albeck where several coronavirus cases were registered. During his visit, Dr. Hamad explicitly mentioned to the press that 'UNRWA has, by closing its offices and not ensuring the right to health care of the refugee population, committed a crime whose victims are the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon located across all refugee camps.'

He further added that '[…] all infected individuals will be treated at the expense of the Lebanese state in the local governmental hospital of the region and individuals who have been in contact with those who have tested positive will also undergo free tests to make sure they are not infected. This way we can limit the spread of this virus across the refugee population and across the country in general.'  This extraordinary step taken to ensure the health of Palestinians in Lebanon is the first initiative by the authorities since the Nakba of 1948, when thousands of Palestinians were forced to seek refuge in Lebanon. 

After being neglected for decades, it is uncertain whether the government’s interventions during the pandemic constitute the first step towards access to justice for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, or whether they simply fall within the broader protection plan that aims to ensure the safety of Lebanese citizens. Ιf the latter is the case, the refugee population in Lebanon is still in a precarious situation. In this context, the politicized and media-saturated intervention, supposedly aiming to protect the rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, could have hidden political goals. Hence, in post-COVID-19 Lebanon, a new system of governance might be operating on the basis of migration control, shaped by the socio-political context surrounding it.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Halawi, R. (2020). Human Rights Violations of Refugee Populations in Lebanon Amidst the Covid-19 Outbreak. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/06/human-rights [date]