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World Refugee Day: COVID-19 Exacerbates the Living Situation for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

World Refugee Day - Reem

Reem, a mother of three, has been living in a refugee camp since 2014. 

This Saturday, June 20 is World Refugee Day.

80% of the world’s refugee population lives in low- and middle-income countries, where health infrastructures are often less developed or less available. The consequences of countries’ containment measures can have devastating effects on access to humanitarian aid, food and basic necessities for marginalized communities.

Nine years into the Syria crisis, Lebanon hosts the largest concentration of refugees per capita, with an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country. Roughly 38% of the registered refugees are settled in the Bekaa valley, with almost half living in non-permanent structures (tents or prefab units). With 78% of Syrian refugees lacking legal residency, exposure to various protection risks is a concern many have.

Adding to these is the fact that, since October 2019, Lebanon has been going through a deep financial and economic crisis, largely affecting the Syrian refugees. They have become more economically vulnerable, with 55% spending less than 3.95 CAD per day in 2019, and the average level of debt per household equivalent to 1,500 CAD in 2019, meaning they are lacking the sufficient resources to cover their vital and basic needs.

Furthermore, the majority of refugees lack proper access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene services and infrastructure. The national water and sanitation network is weak and even before the Syrian crisis, in some parts of Lebanon, inhabitants had to use costly techniques usually associated with emergency settings –especially water trucking and desludging – to meet their needs. The refugees who live in informal tented settlements also rely on the limited amount of water brought through water trucking, compromising their dignity. Absence of permanent solutions to access water and sanitation structures – such as a connection to municipal water and sanitation networks – contribute to this issue. Combined together, these factors drive the poor health status of refugees, increasing vulnerability to infectious and preventable diseases.


Almost half of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in non-permanent structures. 

With the arrival of COVID-19 in Lebanon, citizens have been asked to enhance hygiene practices and apply physical distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus. However, implementing these practices in refugee camps where water is scarce and people are dependent on humanitarian organizations for water supplies is particularly difficult. Refugees were only receiving between 26.5 and 35 litres of water per day, depending on the area where they lived. Moreover, the overcrowded settings and poor sanitation in the camps makes physical distancing difficult, exposing Syrian refugees to enormous health risks.

“We were able to adapt our programming to support the severely vulnerable Syrian refugees in informal camps during this crisis. We increased the quantity of trucked water to 40 litres per person per day and then later 60 litres. But even this amount of water is far from enough to cover all household needs for personal hygiene, disinfection of tents, washing of clothes, cooking, etc.,” says Beatriz Navarro-Rubio, our country director in Lebanon.

Reem, a 30-year-old mother of three, has been living in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon since 2014. Reem says that living in a tent is one the hardest things: it is small, dirty, and inconvenient, but after humanitarian organizations started providing shelter kits, water tanks and other materials, life became slightly easier. But when COVID-19 knocked on Lebanon’s doors, people’s lives changed abruptly. Reem says it was particularly hard on the children: “It’s hard to explain to your kids that they can’t play outside anymore because we all need to isolate in order to prevent the spread of the virus. I sometimes let them go out, but then must make sure that they take all necessary precautions.”

She says that keeping the kids and the tent clean requires large quantities of water, and that even the increased amount that they get delivered to the camp simply does not suffice to be able to follow the most basic COVID-preventive hygiene instructions: “I don’t think that people realize the quantity of water all these require, washing clothes, cleaning the tent regularly, taking your shower and showering your kids, cooking, drinking… 40 litres aren’t enough.”

As a part of the Lebanon Protection Consortium, we distributed hygiene and disinfection kits and communication material, and organized awareness sessions on COVID-19 in West Bekaa and in Arsal, including in the camp where Reem lives with her family. Disinfecting living spaces is an essential part of fighting the COVID-19 virus, yet many refugees are unable to purchase these materials.

“It’s important to distribute disinfection materials because most families cannot afford to buy these products with the current inflation of prices. But these products will last for a month, and the virus is not going anywhere. We might need more support from organizations such as Action Against Hunger in the future. There will be no jobs for us, and therefore no revenue,” concludes Reem.

“IF THE SITUATION PERSISTS, WE COULD DIE OF HUNGER”

Nasser was forced to leave Syria eight years ago and sought safety in Arsal, in northern Lebanon. Like many Syrian refugees, he settled with his family in a tent in one of the informal camps. Life has been difficult at best; although humanitarian organizations provide support, family needs are always greater and things are always lacking. Nasser was able to cover some minor gaps while he still had his savings, but even his savings could not meet all his family’s needs. He decided to use the little resources he had left to buy a small truck to sell vegetables.

Ever since, his daily routine has been the same; he wakes up very early in the morning, starts his truck, turns on a small speaker that he installed on one of the rear-view mirrors, and drives around the refugee camps in Arsal to sell his produce. A few times a week he would buy his products from vendors in the city. For a while, his loudspeakers would play the same recorded message stating all vegetable prices and available products. He would only go back ‘home’ late at night after making sure that he had earned enough to be able to buy new product that he could sell.


Nasser sells vegetables to support his family, but lately vegetables have become too expensive for refugees.

Since October 2019 when Lebanon’s economy started deteriorating, things have become more difficult. Lebanon is going through its worst economic and financial crisis, and living conditions are becoming harder. Prices are increasing drastically on a weekly if not daily basis. These developments have had a drastic impact on refugees. The COVID-19 crisis and its related measures have only further exacerbated this situation: the three-month lockdown left people without jobs and many without any income. Being able to buy food is the biggest concern for most of the refugees: “With the current situation and the spread of the virus, things are getting even harder; I wasn’t able to work for weeks, and just resumed my tours across the camps because I need to provide for my family. I’m obviously scared to get infected, but I try to take all the necessary precautions, keeping social distancing and wearing a mask – even if it means extra expenses. But I need to work and make money. We’re afraid of famine.”

As he tells his story, the camp seems deserted. Some kids are walking around, a woman stops by, asks for the price of a kilogram of tomatoes and leaves. Nasser’s job is getting harder as people cannot afford to buy vegetables or fruits. “People are buying much less these days. Those who used to buy 2 kg of tomatoes now buy only a half a kilo. Just look around, I’ve been here for approximately 30 minutes and no one showed up. People can’t afford to buy vegetables anymore. The quantity of vegetables I buy used to get sold in less than a day, now it takes 3 to 4 days to sell everything,” says Nasser.

In the current political and economic context, increasing numbers of Syrian refugee households are resorting to negative coping mechanisms; one of them is reducing expenditure on food. One third of adult refugees restrict their food consumption so their children can eat. Three refugees out of four reduce the number of meals per day. Many people have been relying mainly on loans and credit purchases from shops and neighbours, but even this practice has become more difficult: “My kids are craving for something more substantial to eat, and it’s humiliating for a father not to be able to provide to your family what they want. I have three kids, one is 6, the other 3 and the youngest is just one year old. I can’t even provide a house for my family, imagine living in a tent for such a long time! With the current situation in Lebanon, what scares me most is that we would die of hunger. If the situation persists for another month, we might face that. People cannot afford to pay 2,000-3,000 LBP (less than 1,35 CAD) for vegetables anymore, we’re heading towards starvation.

 


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