“We will not die from Coronavirus, but from hunger.” How do state and humanitarian policies further compound the risks that refugees are facing during the Coronavirus pandemic? In this post, Jasmin Lilian Diab examines UNHCR’s response to Covid-19 and the impact of social distancing and isolation policies on Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Thus far, UNHCR has focused on preventative health policies in response to Covid-19, such as promoting hand washing, disinfecting and isolation. However, state-led policies and structures already in place, such as preventing Syrian refugees’ access to the formal labour force and health care, and UNHCR’s lack of focus on financial and food aid, further compound the precarious nature of many refugees’ lives, lives already made precarious by the ongoing financial crisis in Lebanon. Diab argues that UNHCR’s response requires us to carefully reflect on ‘issues that are essential for the survival of refugees and displaced persons in Lebanon during the pandemic,’ and highlights the dangers of policies that are not rights based and therefore put refugees at increased risk. 

If you found this piece of interest you might like to read Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s blog post on ‘Refugee-led local responses in the time of Covid-19: Preliminary reflections from North Lebanon,’ or access our recommended readings at the end of this piece. 

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon amid Confinement, Health Scares and Escalating Needs

By Jasmin Lilian Diab, ABD, Research Associate, Global Health Institute, American University of Beirut and MENA Regional Focal Point on Migration, United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth

No cases of Coronavirus have been confirmed so far in the Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon. However, a few suspected cases are being closely monitored and have been isolated pending the results of ongoing tests. In spite of this, rumours about the spread of COVID-19 by Syrian nationalsin Lebanon have been circulating, leading to an official announcement from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) denying these rumours. Nonetheless, the Syrian refugee community has already been under strict confinement for three weeks in certain regions of the country. This confinement was imposed by local authorities long before the state initiated general mobilization across Lebanon.

Residents of informal camps and settlements are obliged to stay at home, and only one person per camp (usually the person nominated by other refugees to act as the settlement’s negotiator and decision-maker) is authorized to go out to collect supplies for the camp’s inhabitants. The same restrictions exist for members of the refugee community who are apartment tenants in towns and cities. They are only allowed to leave their apartment buildings if absolutely necessary, similar to the majority of the Lebanese population.

Several municipalities across the country have launched “de-contamination campaigns” in certain regions. Aware of the dangers involved in leaving their homes, the refugee community has been ready to respect confinement as much as necessary, out of fear of the new Coronavirus and concern for their health and that of others. However, they are also stressing that they need access to aid, food and other health services, which would allow them to survive and further avoid contamination or starvation for that matter.

As severe restrictions already prohibit them from any engaging in any professional activity, even the informal daily jobs which they could normally engage in, such as agricultural work, construction or transport, have completely stopped now. This has prompted a resident of Arsal to publish his outcries on social networks: “We will not die from Coronavirus, but from hunger,” he cries in a video posted on Facebook. “We don’t even have enough to get a loaf of bread.”

In Arsal, where no cases of COVID-19 have been reported to date, the 80,000 members of the displaced Syrian community are following the containment guidelines to the letter. In an interview with L’Orient le Jour, the Director of the Syrian Association Sawaed Alkherwhich conducts decontamination operations in the local camps with the support of local authorities stressed: “Each family lives in isolation and each camp practices isolation”. However, he said that the situation was delicate because it was necessary to support refugee communities’ abilities to fight against COVID-19.

Syrian refugees currently need everything they can get their hands on in order to sanitize the camps – soaps, detergents, disinfectants, masks and gloves. Indeed, it is common sense at this point that the spread of the virus into, and within refugee communities, would be a disaster for the displaced and for the Lebanese population as a whole.

In the Beqaa, the message is the same. There is no infringement, as refugees are well-aware of the dangersof leaving their places of residence. But to remain confined and to survive, they need food and health aid. Members of the community, who have neither the right to go out, nor go to work since the new Coronavirus spread across the country, have been drawing on their reserves for three weeks, after having suffered through the economic crisis, the shortage of U.S. dollars and the aftermath of Lebanon’s latest popular uprising.

At this point in the crisis, there is a dire need for the UNHCR and other international organizations to provide assistance to displaced Syrians. With forced unemployment, the aid granted to the most disadvantaged families is insufficient, and so far only a few informal camps have been decontaminated in the Beqaa, according to multiple news outlets.

UNHCR’s responses to date

For its part, the UNHCR are most definitely aware of the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic makes the Syrian refugees who already live in poverty and precariousness even more vulnerable. Indeed, UNHCR has been increasing prevention and awareness campaigns for Syrian refugees since February 2020, according to their official website. Such campaigns are essential, given the dire conditions in which Syrian refugees live, in both informal camps and in rental accommodation in towns and cities. UNHCR’s work is taking place in coordination with the Lebanese government, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, bearing in mind that the isolation of this community and the restriction of many refugees to camps and informal settlements conceivably prevents them from accessing the services which allowed for their survival or the opportunities to make money by doing informal work.

The organization’s mobilization is currently focused on the concrete response to be given to address health risks and to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The focus of these campaigns includes disseminating information about basic precautionary measures, such as instructions on hand washing, but also the distribution of soap, detergents and disinfectants.

At the same time, the UN agency is studying the modalities of hospitalization available for displaced populations, in case confirmed cases are declared, with Lebanese authorities. The aim is to increase hospital bed capacities, given that current capacities are limited, with the possibility of equipping field hospitals. This response must take place within the framework of the national plan for COVID-19 control.

UNHCR has further stated it is ready to deploy the necessary funds to cover the costs of testing and treating Syrian refugees, and has further reiterated its plans to erect containment tents to provide the necessary quarantine facilities in the event of the virus spreading into and across a particular camp.

As for financial aid intended for the most vulnerable, it remains unchanged to date. Twenty percent of refugee families registered with the UNHCR receive financial aid to the amount of 260,000 LBP per month and 40% of families receive an envelope with 40,000 LBP per month from the World Food Program. Additional compensation for heating in winter is also provided in selected regions. However, it is noteworthy that UNHCR was unable to reach out to the entire refugee community even before the crisis – leaving a significant population of refugees who have slipped below the radar (namely those who are unregistered) to fend for themselves.

Concluding reflections

Is this response to the needs of Syrian refugees in times of COVID-19 sufficient, when the State has openly declared its inability to take care of the Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian refugee communities? While UNHCR protocols are very firm and have been developed through direct collaboration with the World Health Organization, the response invites reflection on issues essential for the survival of refugees and displaced persons in Lebanon during the pandemic: the repercussions on these communities of the financial and economic crisis that characterise these times of prevention against COVID-19, the transfer of priorities from the UNHCR towards preventive medicine, the need to rethink the nature of solidarity between refugees themselves and with the host communities, and finally the modalities of State cooperation with the UN during and after the COVID-19 epidemic.

The authorities must not only consider a national plan which prevents the virus from spreading, but also give a sustainable economic response to support refugees and members of host communities if Lebanon does not wish to be faced with entire communities of people forced to put their own and others’ lives at risk to ensure that their basic needs are met. This crisis must allow for the emergence of a united discourse, which will lay the foundation for a collective, and at the same time individual sense of responsibility.


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

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) ‘Refugee-led local responses in the time of Covid-19: Preliminary reflections from North Lebanon

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Anti-Syrian banners and graffiti in context: Racism, counter-racism and solidarity for refugees in Lebanon

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) Refugees hosting refugees

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) Refugee-refugee solidarity in death and dying

Goodwin, E. (2019) Engaging with religion at the local level for Mental Health and Psychosocial Well-Being following humanitarian crises

Mencütek, Z. S. (2020) Models for refugee governance – Legal, political and institutional responses in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. 

Rutledge, K. (2018) Barriers to localisation: Making the invisible visible

Schmidt, K. (2019) Developmentalising humanitarian space: Questioning the value of development approaches to protracted displacement

Steinberg, A. (2019) Sustaining protracted displacement: A brief history of labor policies for Jordan’s refugees.

Wafai, J. (2018) Al-Mustaqbal in the Space of Refuge

Featured Image: A shuttered window in Baddawi Camp, N. Lebanon (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2020


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