COVID-19 Impact on Refugees is Also Political

The spread of coronavirus in the Levant puts Syrian as well as other refugees and internally displaced people at particular risk because of the policies and practices of the authorities.

Expert comment Updated 15 September 2020 Published 31 March 2020 3 minute READ
The word Corona written in the sand on the beach in Lebanon's southern city of Saida. amid the spread of coronavirus in the country. Photo by MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images.

The word Corona written in the sand on the beach in Lebanon’s southern city of Saida. amid the spread of coronavirus in the country. Photo by MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images.

As Lebanon strains to contain COVID-19, it is not clear which governmental public health policies apply to refugees. The government announced free testing for coronavirus in the public Rafiq Hariri University Hospital in Beirut but has not mentioned if refugees are eligible.

Lebanon’s coronavirus containment strategy is based on self-reporting and, given incidents of forced deportation and harassment of Syrian refugees from both the authorities and local communities, it is certainly less likely refugees would present themselves to the health authorities for fear of deportation.

Despite agreeing a Lebanon Crisis Response Plan with the UN for refugees, different ministries were left to implement it without coordination, just as Lebanese politicians from all sides started trying to rally popular support for ridding Lebanon from refugees - in particular from Syria, who Lebanese leaders say are causing a strain on the country’s already weak infrastructure.

This finger pointing is coupled with the leaders’ own complete disregard for the rampant corruption and lack of accountability within Lebanon’s political class, which contribute to the weakening of the country’s infrastructure.

For refugees who do find themselves back in Syria, there are different challenges according to which area they are in. In the north-east, the WHO and international NGOs (INGOs) negotiate with both Kurdish authorities as well as the government - each presenting its own hurdles.

Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria have closed the Semalka border with Iraqi Kurdistan, posing a serious dilemma for INGOs offering services in north-east Syria but concerned about their staff safety whose movement is now curtailed.

The government of Syria has stipulated all emergency response must go through its ministries. But this limits what the WHO can do in the country and gives Syrian authorities the ability to block ‘cross-line aid’ which goes from government-controlled to non-government areas.

Despite reports that doctors raised the alarm about suspected cases well before patient zero was confirmed, the government appears to be either covering up the actual extent of the spread of COVID-19 or failing to respond. Some limited testing kits have arrived but testing has barely started.

The WHO’s Syria plan is divided into three regions (north-west, north-east, and areas under government control). But concerns remain as to how workable such a decentralized plan is because of the government’s practices. In January, the UN Security Council did not renew the cross-border response resolution for the Yaroubiye border crossing between Syria and Iraq that the WHO was using to send medical supplies into north-east Syria.

Syrian authorities do not permit recently authorized ‘cross-line’ responders to engage with non-government authorities in areas outside regime control. This essentially voids the authorization to work cross-line as it is practically impossible to implement programs. The WHO has sought approval from the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to move medical supplies by land to north-east Syria.

While promising facilitation, the Ministry’s reply comes with conditions of seeking detailed approval for every shipment. When Eastern Ghouta was under siege, similar conditions led to certain supplies being removed from UN/ICRC convoys to Eastern Ghouta, and there is no guarantee this will not happen again.

Due to lack of capacity in north-east Syria, coronavirus tests conducted by the WHO there must be processed through the Central Public Health Laboratory in Damascus. Samples are transported twice a week from Qamishli to Damascus but no results were ever received from Damascus for those tests.

While the WHO is able to coordinate access to north-west Syria with the Turkish authorities, the prospective coronavirus testing capacity in the Idlib region is low – despite claims that thousands of kits are arriving, a lack of resource on the ground means potentially only 20 tests per day could be done in an area inhabited by an estimated three million people.

Following the recently announced ceasefire in the area, many internally displaced people are returning from the Turkish border to their homes in the north-west, but such mass movement increases the risk of coronavirus spreading. People also continue to move between Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, posing a challenge to the WHO’s COVID-19 response in the Levant, as the WHO has distinct response plans for each country in the region and it is difficult to coordinate across these plans.

Challenges face refugees even if they head towards Europe due to the potential for conflation between migration control and coronavirus outbreak control. Aurelie Ponthieu, Coordinator for Forced Migration at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says there is a risk some countries could use COVID-19 to impose draconian measures towards asylum seekers.

The crisis has also put a halt to search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean because European countries are not allowing boats carrying migrants to disembark under the pretext of limiting the spread of coronavirus. And for migrants who already made it - such as in Greece - they are now being put in collective quarantines in asylum centers, often with poor medical facilities.

Ponthieu also reports that migrants being quarantined on overcrowded navy ships docked in Greek ports, making social distancing impossible. And she is concerned the Greek authorities are imposing a curfew on asylum seekers but not on the local population.

UNHCR is stressing that people’s right of asylum must not be overruled by concerns about the spread of coronavirus, while local and international NGOs across the Levant are trying to coordinate their advocacy on lifting restrictions on freedom of movement for humanitarian workers and on other policies and practices by authorities in the region which are adversely affecting refugee and other vulnerable communities.

The international community must not lose sight of the impact of the crisis on refugees and migrants. It is not enough simply to supply humanitarian and medical assistance without paying attention to the policies and practices of the different authorities who have direct control over the fate of vulnerable communities.

The author would like to thank Aurelie Ponthieu and the two INGO field workers who all agreed to be interviewed to inform this analysis piece.