Refugee-led Local Responses in the Time of COVID-19: Preliminary reflections from North Lebanon

by Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, PI of Refugee Hosts, UCL

How can we, and why should we, write about a deadly pandemic which is further compounding the vulnerabilities of millions of people whose lives and wellbeing have long been shattered by protracted conflict and displacement? Having previously felt unable to do so out of a combination of searing dread and paralysis, I have finally decided to write this piece because, in the midst of widespread desperation caused by COVID-19, local responses continue to be at the forefront of everyday life in the cities, towns and camps where Refugee Hosts has been conducting research since 2016.

It is of course important to document, and try to mitigate, the impact of COVID-19 on conflict and displacement-affected people – including refugees and IDPs. At the same time, it is also essential to note that local communities are responding to overlapping disasters around the world, including responses being implemented by people who are themselves refugees.

In this short reflection, I argue that it is important to acknowledge and document the many ways that refugees – in this case Palestinians in Baddawi camp, Lebanon – are acting in response to the pandemic, to protect themselves and other conflict-affected people – in this case, including the Syrian refugees they live alongside. In so doing, it is even more important that we place these local responses within the context of diverse local, national and international structures of inequality and exclusion. 


On 10 March, UNHCR launched its COVID-19 appeal, aiming to develop strategies and mechanisms to provide support for all refugees around the world except Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. It was seven days later, on 17 March, that UNRWA – the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank – launched a major fund-raising campaign to secure funds to support Palestinian refugees as they face the pandemic. A week later, on 24 March, UNRWA reported the first confirmed case of the new coronavirus amongst the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon. An UNRWA spokesperson noted on 26 March that “it has not yet received financial support to provide medical precautions in order to cope with coronavirus in Palestinian refugee camps.”

Both of the UN refugee agencies operate in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps, which have been home to Palestinians since the 1950s and have also been hosting refugees from Syria since 2011: UNRWA is ostensibly responsible for the wellbeing of Palestinian refugees, while UNHCR has a mandate to protect all non-Palestinian refugees. However, far from two UN agencies meaning that refugees in Palestinian camps have access to two forms of support systems, with their widely divergent budgets, mandates and programmatic activities, these international actors have created and solidified a bifurcated system of assistance, consolidating a hierarchy of worth and exclusion between different groups of refugees on the basis of their nationality and place of origin (see here and here).

As COVID-19 cases have expanded across Lebanon – with fears that cases are being dramatically underreported -, so too have xenophobic, anti-refugee and discriminatory responses. These have included demands by Lebanese officials and politicians for Palestinian camps to be placed under even greater control and governmental surveillance, invoking the threats that have long been imagined as emanating from these ‘foreign’ and ‘polluted’ spaces. The Lebanese Red Cross has also recently reportedly “refused to transfer a patient from a refugee camp to the [Rafiq Hariri University Hospital in Beirut – the only public hospital where COVID-19 patients are being quarantined and treated free of charge], causing more anxiety amid camps residents.”

In turn, my trepidation to write about the impact of COVID-19 on refugees in the region, and about the way that local responses have been developed in Lebanon, is largely related to the acute fear that I, and we as a family, have for the wellbeing and safety of our family in the refugee camps in Lebanon and further afield. As I have argued on many occasions (ie. hereand here), it is not possible to identify or maintain a clear distinction between the academic and the personal, or indeed between the personal, the political and the academic. In our family’s case, my daughter’s grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins in Lebanon are praying that the virus doesn’t arrive in their refugee camp homes, or the home-camps of their and our relatives and friends across the region.

If COVID-19 does enter further into these urban, overcrowded camps – which seems inevitable at this stage -, pre-existing health conditions that have multiplied and worsened in exile, the fragile UNRWA health systems that have been de-funded and weakened over decades by fickle funders and international agencies alike, and a long history of Lebanese health systems discriminating against and denying treatment to refugees, will all leave camp residents – including Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds and Lebanese – acutely vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that Palestinians’ mistrust towards international and national actors alike remains high as they face COVID-19. It is also unsurprising that Palestinians, alongside other displaced and dispossessed people around the world, are finding different ways to respond to protect themselves and others.

Baddawi Camp (Lebanon): Local Responses in the Time of COVID-19

Spaces of safety?

Baddawi camp in North Lebanon has had a curfew since 22 March 2020. Unlike previous curfews and camp lock-downs (of which there have been many since the camp was established in the 1950s), this curfew has not been imposed by Lebanese authorities asserting that camps are sites of danger. Instead, after COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in a neighbouring non-camp area, Baddawi camp activists lobbied for the camp’s entrances and exits to be closed in order to help protect the camp’s residents.

Here, as in other displacement and hosting contexts, refugee camps are not isolated spaces, but are intimately connected to non-camp urban and non-urban areas. While Palestinian camps are often perceived as ‘islands of insecurity’, in this context, many camp residents have identified the risks that exist outside the camp, and have worked to encourage people to remain within their home(camp)s. (On many Syrian refugees’ perceptions of these camps as safer than non-camp areas in Lebanon, see here).

Since and before the curfew started, many individuals and groups in Baddawi camp have been working tirelessly to prepare and distribute information, guidelines and resources to help keep camp residents as safe as possible in the context of this pandemic, including examples introduced below.

COVID-19 Information and Guidelines in Baddawi Camp

With UNRWA having been perceived to be slow in implementing appropriate measures to inform and support camp residents facing the risks of COVID-19, and drawing on their knowledge of life and needs in the camp, members of the Cultural Club in the camp have adapted existing information posters, translating them into Arabic and sharing the posters and other forms of guidance through social media networks to reach camp residents of all demographics in an accessible manner.

علامات وأعراض فيروس كورونا الجديد النادي الثقافي
An informational poster adapted by members of the Cultural Club in Baddawi camp, and distributed by the Club to the camp’s residents via social media. (c) Cultural Club, Baddawi Camp.

The Cultural Club has been working with and through networks established and run locally over many years, including social media networks which have in the past been used to inform residents about everything from school closures to which areas of the camp should be avoided in light of armed clashes or sporadic shootings. The threat is less visible, or audible now, but the threat to life is no less real.

Donations and Food Baskets: Adapting to ever-changing challenges

This time last year, a group of Palestinian camp-residents were collecting financial donations (zakāt and/or adaqāt) from other Palestinians to start cooking and preparing iftar food baskets which would be distributed during the holy month of Ramadan to those residents (Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, Kurdish and Lebanese) identified as being in particular need of additional food supplies, irrespective of their nationality or place of origin (on refugee-refugee humanitarianism, and faith-based local responses, see here and here).

This year, however, with fear and necessary restrictions on movement arising from COVID-19, it is not safe for large numbers of people to collect financial donations door to door, or to buy ingredients in order to work together as a group to prepare and then distribute hot meals during Ramadan.

Importantly, the group of people in need of additional supplies in the camp is significantly larger than last year not ‘simply’ because of COVID-19, but precisely because of last year’s collapse of the already-fragile Lebanese economy.

The accentuated financial crisis has meant that those people who were lucky enough to receive salaries through bank transfers have been unable to withdraw money from their bank accounts for months (dollar withdrawals from banks were suspended entirely on 30 March). In turn, those residents who once received or relied on remittances from family and friends have been unable to receive international money transfers. At the same time, all camp residents have witnessed the more than two- or even three-fold hike in prices for basic necessities over the past few months.  In essence, people’s situation in the camps is dire, not merely because of ‘displacement’, but because of the national context, politics and policies that frame their lives.

With limited cash flow in the camps, unable to access funds from abroad, and with restrictions of movement in the camp, one of the camp’s initiatives, the Cultural Club, has been seeking out other ways to safely collect and distribute donations to people in need in the camps.

Donations sourced in the camp are organised in food boxes by members of the Cultural Club in Baddawi Camp, ready for distribution to the camp’s residents in April 2020 (c) M. M. Qasmiyeh and Cultural Club, Baddawi Camp

For instance, Club members have contacted local businesses including groceries and mini-markets both inside and on the outskirts of the camp, to ask for financial and material donations. Instead of the Club members working together to cook hot meals, their aim this year is to collect food items which will be safely distributed so that people can cook their own meals to break the fast when the holy month of Ramadan starts in late-April. They have converted the Club into a storage and packing unit, from which deliveries will soon start being made.

The Cultural Club in Baddawi Camp collects and stores donations for the camp’s residents in Spring 2020 (c) M. M. Qasmiyeh and Cultural Club, Baddawi Camp.

In these small examples from Baddawi camp – and there are hundreds of others taking place in localities around the world -, people are working individually and collectively to find ways to keep their families, homes and communities safe, and to care for neighbours and strangers alike.

By acknowledging the many and diverse roles that people who have been displaced play to protect themselves and others I do not aim to idealise these. Instead, as we have been arguing throughout the Refugee Hosts project, this acknowledgement is essential both to continue challenging monolithic representations of refugees as passive recipients of aid provided by citizens and international agencies, and to stress the ways that these responses seek to fill gaps and redress inequalities created and reproduced by national and international actors alike.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that we continue asking how people who have been displaced – including in camps and non-camp spaces – are being affected by and are responding to the diverse challenges that characterise their lives. It is also essential that we critically examine the ways that pre-existing support systems and networks (such as those documented in our new Refugee Hosts- Yale report on Religion and Social Justice for Refugees) are being affected both by the virus itself and by the different policies and politics emerging in the context of the pandemic.

As we discuss the need for social distancing and self-isolation to keep us and others safe, it is essential that we continue to remember that camps, even those which are intimately connected to other non-camp spaces, have long been spaces of containment and forced immobility. We cannot understand either the vulnerabilities that people face in displacement, or the responses they are developing, without considering the ways that local experiences and responses are framed by connections and relations with other spaces and systems on multiple scales, including long-standing structural inequalities and processes of marginalisation and exclusion. The vulnerabilities that the residents of Baddawi camp, and other displaced people around the world, are facing are caused by political failures that have deep historical roots, and whose repercussions will continue to be palpably felt in both the near and distant future.


Refugee Hosts welcomes contributions that examine local responses to displacement, including refugee- and citizen-led responses to the challenges arising both from COVID-19 and the different policies and politics arising in the context of the pandemic. If you would like to join this conversation, please visit the faith and displacement series, or pitch your piece here.

If you have found this piece of interest, you may find the following of relevance:

Featured image: Donations sourced in the camp are organised in food boxes by members of the Cultural Club in Baddawi Camp, ready for distribution to the camp’s residents in April 2020 (c) M. M. Qasmiyeh and Cultural Club, Baddawi Camp


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