Refugees in a building under construction they have been using as a shelter in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020, after Lebanon urged people to stay at home for two weeks to stem a novel coronavirus outbreak. © 2020 Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images
The Lebanese government’s Covid-19 vaccination program risks leaving behind marginalized communities, including refugees and migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said last week.
Despite the government’s promises of an equitable program, the effort has been tainted by political interference and a lack of information.
HRW said that United Nations data shows that Syrian and Palestinian refugees have died from Covid-19 at a rate more than four and three times the national average, respectively. Yet, according to the government’s online Covid-19 vaccine registration and tracking platform, only 2.86 percent of those vaccinated and 5.36 percent of those registered to receive vaccinations are non-Lebanese, even though they constitute at least 30 percent of the population.
“With one in three people in Lebanon a refugee or migrant, a third of the population risks being left behind in the vaccination plan,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to invest in targeted outreach to build trust with long-marginalized communities or the Covid-19 vaccination effort is doomed to fail.”
Between February and March 2021, Human Rights Watch spoke to 21 Syrian refugees, 6 Palestinian refugees, the caretaker labor minister, and staff from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a grassroots collective in Lebanon that fights discrimination.
As of April 5, only 3,638 Palestinians and 1,159 Syrians have been vaccinated, though 19,962 Palestinian refugees and health workers and 6,701 Syrian refugees are eligible in the first phase of the vaccine rollout.
Syrian refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch raised fears of arrest, detention, or even deportation if they registered through a government-managed platform, especially if they do not have legal residency in Lebanon. Due to restrictive Lebanese residency policies, only 20 percent of an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have the legal right to live in the country, leaving the vast majority vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, detention, harassment, and even deportation.
Although the 200,000 Palestinian refugees do not face the same fears over arrest and deportation, many have very little trust in the Lebanese government, which has systematically discriminated against them and barred them from getting government social services, including health care. They can get health care only through the private sector, which charges prohibitively high fees, or through international organizations like UNRWA.
Mistrust of the Lebanese government runs so deep that Palestinian refugees told Human Rights Watch they fear that even if they were to register, they would not actually receive the vaccine and would have to pay a fee they could not afford.
Migrant workers, many of whom are working in Lebanon under the exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system, either had no information whatsoever about the vaccine or expressed mistrust of the Lebanese authorities.
HRW said that to ensure equitable vaccine distribution despite the huge supply shortages, Lebanese authorities should follow the World Health Organization (WHO) SAGE values framework for the allocation and prioritization of Covid-19 vaccines, which offers guidance on the prioritization of groups when vaccine supply is limited. The SAGE guidance calls for ensuring national equity in vaccine access, particularly for groups experiencing greater burdens from the pandemic, such as people living in poverty, especially extreme poverty, and low-income migrant workers and refugees, especially those living in close quarters who are unable to physically distance.