COVID-19 spells disaster for Palestinians in Lebanon

A woman sprays another woman's hands as two women look on

Women are sprayed with disinfectants before entering a charity center in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. 

Mohamed Azakir Reuters

Lebanon recently confirmed the first COVID-19 case among Palestinian refugees in the country.

The case was in Wavel, a refugee camp located in the Baqaa Valley near Baalbek. After the patient was transferred to the Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut for treatment, Bachir Khodr, head of the Baalbek-Hermel Governorate, announced that the camp would be closed and monitored by Lebanese state security forces.

Although the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Lebanon had surpassed 700 on 27 April, and a nationwide lockdown was instituted in March, no similar security closures have been imposed elsewhere. The announcement reflects decades of security oversight of Palestinians in Lebanon and will make the already difficult lives of Palestinian refugees in the country even harder.

The lockdown was declared on 15 March. The emergency measures are expected to be in force for some time.

The Lebanese authorities have also adopted a number of preventive measures to avoid the rapid spread of the virus, including a relief plan for poor families.

Excluding refugees

However, Palestinian and Syrian refugees are not eligible for support, which extends only to Lebanese citizens.

There are more than 475,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon – who are not considered citizens – and two thirds are poor.

More than 60,000 live on less than $2 per day and depend on quarterly financial grants and assistance provided by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine’s refugees, of roughly $50 per person per quarter.

This assistance was barely enough to meet their basic needs before an economic crisis began last year let alone a global pandemic. And the lockdowns – which apply to refugee camps as well as the rest of the country – have hit refugee incomes especially hard.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon face legal restrictions that limit their right to work. Since most depend on daily labor paid in cash, the national lockdown has had a devastating impact on their livelihoods.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNRWA initiated an emergency plan whereby the agency closed its facilities, implemented awareness campaigns within the Palestinian refugee camps and gatherings in Lebanon, and announced it would cover 90 percent of health expenditures related to COVID-19 testing and treatment.

However, the plan did not initially include a provision to ameliorate the economic conditions of refugees suffering due to the closure.

In March, UNRWA then launched an urgent appeal for $14 million in additional funding in response to COVID-19.

But the appeal has not not received the desired response from governments around the world.

According to Sami Mushasha, an UNRWA spokesperson, by April 10, the agency had received just about a quarter of the amount it sought. It has been forced to draw funds from other programs.

UNRWA coffers nearly empty

UNRWA was already struggling to maintain its programs. In 2018, the Trump administration cut US funding. As the US had been the agency’s largest donor – providing $360 million in annual aid – the decision cut the agency budget to the bone.

On 17 March, Mara Kronenfeld, the new executive director of UNRWA USA – a group supporting the agency – spoke to a foreign aid subcommittee of the US House of Representatives. Kronenfeld called on the US Congress to restore the agency’s funding at previous levels.

She also asked for assistance to help the agency confront COVID-19 in its health centers.

Kronenfeld reported that UNRWA was in “dire financial straits.” It began the year with $55 million in debt. The agency has only received pledges of $299 million to date, a fraction of its total $1.4 billion annual budget.

In spite of the dangers of the pandemic, however, so far there has been no help from Washington.

And even when emergency assistance is provided, it is insufficient. A number of governments recently provided $5 million to UNRWA. Some of these funds will be allocated to the neediest cases in Lebanon. However, the majority of the Palestinian refugees in the country are unlikely to receive assistance.

The combination of Lebanon’s economic crisis and COVID-19 will further weaken refugees’ already precarious status. UNRWA’s inability to provide sufficient services and support has left thousands of Palestinian refugees vulnerable to hunger and poverty.

Yet the current crisis fits into a longer pattern of reduced UNRWA services that began well before Donald Trump’s presidency. The US attitude to UNRWA is in line with Israel’s position that the agency must be dismantled.

COVID-19 exposed the agency’s inability to meet the needs of Palestinian refugees, it also revealed the unprecedented level of extreme poverty among them.

“I’ve smelled hunger in the camps”

But UNRWA is not the only body that is responsible for the refugees.

The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, which claims it is responsible for the refugee camps in Lebanon, has left the refugees to fend for themselves.

The PA’s embassy in Beirut has agreed to cover the remaining 10 percent of the costs of treating refugees who contract the virus. But the PA has yet to announce that it will provide any economic assistance.

Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s president, was forced to react to an announcement by Hamas that it has allocated $500,000 to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Abbas subsequently personally donated 11,000 food rations to be distributed to poor families in Palestinian refugee camps and gatherings in Lebanon.

Palestinian non-governmental organizations working in the refugee camps have also been forced to redirect some of their program budgets in response to the pandemic. The funds are supporting families who have been economically affected by the closure.

Kalidat Hussein who heads Tadamon, an organization that promotes women’s rights in refugee camps in Lebanon, told The Electronic Intifada how poverty and destitution had tangibly increased.

“I’ve smelled death in the past like at Tel al-Zaatar,” Hussein said, referring to a siege imposed on Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian militia in 1976 . “But this is the first time that I’ve smelled hunger in the camps.”

UNRWA’s responsibilities do not end with merely covering the costs of treating refugees with COVID-19. The agency must live up to its mandate by ensuring access to and an adequate supply of food, implementing a preventive health plan and providing economic assistance to the refugees.

Similarly, the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which claim to represent Palestinians everywhere, cannot abandon the most vulnerable Palestinians during a pandemic.

The spread of COVID-19 did not reveal the fragility of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. That was already known.

It has demonstrated, however, that the world’s most powerful governments and institutions and the Lebanese and Palestinian authorities have all failed – or refused – to protect refugees.

The consequences of this indifference is now becoming clearer as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon face a full-blown humanitarian disaster.

Dalal Yassine is a program and policy adviser with Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.