Clamping down on refugees will not save Lebanon from the pandemic
As the coronavirus outbreak spread around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) was quick to recommend that countries take measures to contain the deadly virus. It urged physical distancing to limit the spread of the virus and encouraged increased personal and public hygiene. In Lebanon, this has provided another opportunity for political figures to target marginalised communities, especially Palestinian and Syrian refugees.
At a March 13 news conference, Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, who is known for making racist statements, implied that Palestinian and Syrian refugees would be spreaders of COVID-19 in Lebanon and argued that the refugee communities posed a threat to public health.
Despite Geagea's attempts to blame the outbreak on refugee populations, Lebanon's first COVID-19 cases were not Palestinian or Syrian refugees. Rather, it is suspected they were Lebanese nationals who were returning from Iran and Jesuit priests who had travelled to Italy.
The priests are based in a church less than 30 minutes away from Geagea's home in Ma'arab, north of Beirut, yet he made no mention of them in his news conference.
Instead, he called for the Lebanese Army to tighten security around the Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps and limit entry and exit to and from them.
It soon became clear that the local authorities shared Geagea's attitude towards refugees.
On March 15, the government announced general mobilisation across the country and local authorities started coordinating with security forces to stop "unnecessary" movement from camps. Refugee communities have already complained that the curfews they face are longer than those imposed on Lebanese citizens. In some areas, they are allowed to be outside of their houses for just five hours.
Palestinians have faced restrictions for decades by the Lebanese authorities, and so have Syrians more recently. That the Lebanese authorities are resorting to such actions amid the COVID-19 outbreak is rather unsurprising.
Putting more restrictions on refugees than on the rest of the population will not stop the spread of the virus, but it will add to the suffering of these marginalised groups. What both the Lebanese and refugee communities need is improved access to testing, health care, clean water, personal protective gear, and hygienic products.