Stigmatization and discrimination in refugee camps in Lebanon in times of coronavirus

The country's Ministry of Information launches a campaign to prevent the spread of hoaxes and false news
Syrian refugee children play outside their family's tents in a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern city of Baalbek, Lebanon

AP/BILAL HUSSEIN  -   Syrian refugee children play outside their family's tents in a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern city of Baalbek, Lebanon

"Not only is there inequality in the distribution of wealth, but also in the satisfaction of basic needs," said the writer José Saramago. Access to necessary services such as water or sanitation becomes a great odyssey for the thousands of people who face the challenge of living in a refugee camp.  At the moment, Lebanon, a country of around 4.5 million inhabitants, hosts more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees.  Not only that, but this country is also home to more than 174,000 Palestinians, who have left their homes behind in search of a future where peace is possible. Right now, more than a third of the population of this country is on the brink of a pandemic like the coronavirus, which, for the moment, has left 24 dead and 721 infected. Inequality shows its cruelest side in this type of situation, where the health of the most vulnerable is relegated to a second place. 

Lebanon has given thousands of refugees a new chance to start their lives, but it has also discriminated them and marginalized them through a series of policies that deny them access to certain basic services such as work, education and access to health care, among other options. The coronavirus has further exacerbated this situation and created the perfect breeding ground for anti-refugee sentiment to emerge. Several international humanitarian organizations have in recent weeks denounced the fact that "unjustified" curfews have been imposed in many municipalities, affecting only Syrian refugees and not Lebanese residents.  

Vista general de las tiendas de campaña en un campamento en Bar Elias, en el valle de la Bekaa, Líbano
REUTERS/MAHAMED AZAKIR - Overview of tents at a camp in Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

The uncertainty created by the COVID-19 virus has reached the refugee camps in Lebanon. The humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has had the opportunity to speak with a group of Syrian refugees who fear further discrimination and stigmatization if they contract the disease. Moreover, some of them even fear deportation if they show symptoms that may be related to the coronavirus.  

In view of this situation, HRW has asked the Government of Syria to take measures to alleviate the mistrust of the refugee population towards the authorities. "The government should simultaneously launch an information campaign to provide refugees with all the facts they need to protect themselves from infection and seek medical care in a timely manner. The authorities should also explain to the refugees that they will not face reprisals or stigmatization if they seek testing or treatment for COVID-19". 

Niños palestinos y sirios juegan en una calle del campamento de refugiados palestinos de Shatila, en las afueras del sur de la capital libanesa, Beirut
AFP/ANWAR AMRO - Palestinian and Syrian children play on a street in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut
The danger of disinformation

Throughout history, governments and political parties have used propaganda to achieve their goals. However, with the emergence of new technologies and social networks, the concepts of propaganda and disinformation have taken on new dimensions. It is true that this phenomenon is not new, but the speed and the facility with which anyone can create and distribute this type of news is. For the journalist Marc Amorós, fake news is "false information designed to pass itself off as news with the aim of spreading a deception or deliberate disinformation in order to achieve a political or financial end".

The coronavirus has been accompanied by false news, hoaxes or conspiracy theories that have caused fear and mistrust to spread through these refugee camps, even faster than this disease does. In this context, the Lebanese Ministry of Information has partnered with other international organizations such as WHO, UNICEF or UNDP to launch a campaign to counteract the dissemination of false information related to COVID-19. The country's Minister of Information, Manal Abdel Samad, has highlighted the many risks associated with false news and considers that this type of information can create "confusion and generate false hopes".

La ministra de Información, Manal Abdel Samad, en una conferencia de prensa en el palacio presidencial de Baabda (Líbano)
PHOTO/DALATI NOHRA via REUTERS - Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad at a press conference at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon

This campaign will produce a register of rumours circulating in the country, which will then be verified and provide "neutral, accurate and reliable" information, according to the organizations involved in a joint statement. In addition, a web portal will be set up to verify certain news items and a media campaign will be launched to disprove certain hoaxes. "The battle against the COVID-19 outbreak is also a fight against misinformation. This could have serious repercussions on the health of individuals and their families," said Iman Shankiti, WHO representative in Lebanon. 

For UNICEF Representative in Lebanon Yukie Mokuo, "misinformation leaves children, families and communities unprotected and makes them more vulnerable to disease, spreading fear and stigmatization". In her view, this is a key moment to show our scientific progress and our solidarity. 

Trabajadores desinfectan el campamento Wavel (también conocido como el campamento Jalil) para refugiados palestinos en el valle oriental de Bekaa en el Líbano, el 22 de abril de 2020
PHOTO/AP - Workers disinfect the Wavel camp (also known as the Jalil camp) for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa valley on 22 April 2020
Job precariousness and poverty

This economic instability has highlighted the precarious situation in which hundreds of people live in this country. In recent weeks, the UN and other international organizations have warned of the danger that refugees run of contracting the disease because of the "overcrowded situations in which they usually live". The impossibility of being able to survive economically favours the establishment of precariousness in this type of camp.  In this scenario, it is also necessary to consider the difficulty these people have in accessing certain basic services, such as food or health care. How then are they going to implement measures such as social distancing, self-isolation or proper hygiene practices? 

In crisis situations, people can show the best or the worst of themselves. In this spiral of instability there is still room for hope, thanks to the Lebanese Protection Consortium (LPC), an institution that brings together Action Against Hunger, Gruppo di Volontariato Civile and the Norwegian Refugee Council, with the support of the European Union's Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid. This organization has been established to respond to the humanitarian needs of Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in the country's refugee camps. 

A study carried out by this conglomerate of institutions to analyze the impact of COVID-19 in the region shows that at least 87% of the Syrian refugees interviewed living in Lebanon consider that hygiene items (detergents and bleach) are essential to respond to COVID-19 and 69% of them highlighted the need to use protective equipment such as gloves and masks. Likewise, 34% of those interviewed admitted to encountering obstacles in accessing health services; while 71% said they felt an increase in stress and anxiety with the appearance of this pathogen.  According to this survey, almost 50% of those interviewed have had to stop working, in a situation where having money or not can be synonymous, in some cases, with living or dying.

Una calle está vacía después de que la mayoría de las tiendas y restaurantes cerraran como parte de las medidas preventivas contra la actual pandemia de coronavirus, en el distrito comercial Hamra de Beirut
AP/HUSSEIN MALLA - A street is empty after most shops and restaurants closed as part of preventive measures against the current coronavirus pandemic, in Beirut's Hamra shopping district
The LGTBI+ collective, the forgotten ones 

In addition to suffering the consequences of living in these refugee camps, LGBTI+ people face double discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  At present, the policies taken by the country's government to reduce the impact of the coronavirus have completely ignored one of the most vulnerable groups. Many of the LGBTI+ people living in refugee camps throughout the country work in unregulated jobs. At the moment they do not have the opportunity to continue with their work and not even be able to earn any income.

The civil war that devastated the country in the 1990s had infinite consequences, and one of the most serious was the economic impact. Since then, many of the companies that have emerged in the country have rejected LGBTI+ people. In the case of transsexuals, Human Rights Watch has reported that the lack of identification documents that match their gender expression is synonymous with being outside the labor market.  If the international community and the country's own government do not address the specific needs of this population group, the consequences could be disastrous. All this in a context of economic instability in which it is estimated, according to the Ministry of Finance itself, that inflation will reach 27% in 2020, a fact whose most direct consequence will be a drastic increase in the prices of basic commodities such as food or medicine. 

Una bandera del orgullo gay con el árbol de cedro en el medio durante una manifestación anti-homofóbica en Beirut
AFP/ JOSEPH EID - A gay pride flag with the cedar tree in the middle during an anti-homophobic demonstration in Beirut

In early April, the same ministry announced that it would push forward a series of measures to help the poorest families with some 400,000 Lebanese pounds. Human Rights Watch fears that the distribution channels for this type of aid will be manipulated by political parties and exclude LGBT refugees. 

"The blockade to stop the spread of COVID-19 has exacerbated the poverty and economic difficulties that prevailed in Lebanon before the arrival of the virus," warned Lena Simet, senior researcher on poverty and inequality at Human Rights Watch. "Many people who had an income have lost it, and if the government does not intervene, more than half the population may not be able to afford food and basic needs," she added. Although local initiatives have emerged to prevent the impact of this crisis, the LGBT community and refugees have become the forgotten ones in this pandemic.