For refugees who have spent the holy month this year far from their homes and families, faced with poverty, hardship, and uncertainty, Ramadan has been bittersweet. But with the help and generosity of our supporters and partners, UNHCR reached even more refugee families this Ramadan to ensure they had access to food at iftar, clean water, and a safe place to live.
Lebanon continues to host the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, with almost one million registered Syrian refugees. As many as 20% of refugee families in Lebanon are living in informal settlements across the country.
In an interview with UNHCR Representative in Lebanon, Mireille Girard, she explains the role of UNHCR in preventing the further spread of COVID19 and how we are seeking to protect refugee families during Ramadan and beyond.
- What is the current situation of the refugee population in Lebanon, especially refugees living in informal settlements, amid the economic challenges?
The current situation is having a severe impact on refugees’ mental health, access to livelihoods, and consequent ability to meet their family’s basic survival needs like rent, food, medicine, and education, as well as increasing the risk of child protection issues and sexual and gender based violence, as it is for many Lebanese and other residents. Many also fear being stigmatized if they are infected, and that intercommunal tensions may rise further.
The 2019 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian refugees (VASyR) shows that 73 per cent of refugee families live below the poverty line of USD 3.84 per person per day, and 55 per cent live in extreme poverty, on less than USD 2.9/person/day. These socio-economic vulnerabilities have increased since October 2019 and are further compounded by the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 lockdown, aggravating income generating opportunities, unemployment and competition over resources. The situation is becoming desperate, affecting not only people’s ability to survive without subjecting themselves to exploitation, but also their realistic ability to comply with the restrictions on movement. This has meant that refugees have increased their appeal for help to both UNHCR and the media, pleading for urgent assistance, like for example, cash to cover rent and in-kind assistance particularly food, hygiene and sterilization items.
- How is UNHCR Lebanon responding to the current health crisis, the COVID19 outbreak? (Any preventive measures taken in regards to refugees?)
In light of this unfolding health emergency, UNHCR has strengthened its overall preparedness, prevention and response measures to account for the health and well-being of refugees and humanitarian personnel working for them all over the country. UNHCR has also adapted its regular programmes to adjust to changes in the operating environment, with some activities temporarily suspended or significantly reduced while others were expanded to respond to emerging needs.
We are working within the framework of the Government’s response to the COVID-19 emergency, and in close collaboration with WHO and other partners to ensure that refugees’ needs are addressed in a coordinated, equal and coherent manner. UNHCR’s contribution to the refugee-component of the response falls within four main areas, namely prevention, containment of transmission, treatment and mitigation of socio-economic effects:
- Prevention: Community engagement and awareness-raising
UNHCR is leading the dissemination of this information among refugees in Lebanon through individual text messages, guidance to refugees calling hotlines and an awareness campaign on all media and social media platforms. In addition, UNHCR has trained more than 400 UNHCR staff and frontline workers and more than 6,000 community volunteers on hygiene promotion and awareness of COVID-19 symptoms.
UNHCR has also initiated distribution of hygiene materials including soap, sanitizer, bleach, and hygiene kits to refugees in informal settlements, collective shelters and private accommodations. This activity is ongoing, with UNHCR aiming to distribute hand sanitizers and bleach to 50,500 households in Lebanon.
- Containment of transmission: Isolation procedures in overcrowded settings
UNHCR is working with the concerned authorities and organizations on contingency planning, and has stepped-up measures for self-isolation and containment in the event the virus and community transmissions are identified among the refugee community.
In those circumstances we have developed procedures to immediately isolate people affected from the rest of the community in their settlement.
It includes several levels: isolating at home or by creating a separate shelter for those affected cases within the settlement to isolate them from the rest of the community.
If this number increases further and reaches several settlements, the idea is to have a communal building in between to receive affected cases from several settlements. And in case we reach a higher number of infected cases in the settlement, then it’s the whole settlement that will be isolated and increasing measures of hygiene health care will be provided within the settlement.
- Treatment: Reinforcing hospitalization capacity
UNHCR is working closely with the Government to support the expansion of the health sector’s existing capacity, so that all COVID-19 infected persons who will require hospitalization can be given treatment in a timely manner without creating competition for care between individuals. This will be addressed at both the screening level at the dedicated COVID-19 Ministry of Public Health hotline and the treatment level in selected hospitals and facilities.
UNHCR is creating additional hospital capacity for refugees who need to be hospitalized in existing hospitals and some field hospitals in the country that are being established as well. So we’re joining hands with the government to identify those – mainly public hospitals and a few private hospitals – that will be able to receive an additional number of patients by extending their capacity through prefabricated units that would be established in the hospital. These wards will be equipped with sufficient hospital supplies, medicines equipment for intensive care units, and regular hospital beds.
- What kind of assistance is UNHCR providing to refugee families during this health crisis?
UNHCR’s multipurpose cash assistance programme has been in place since 2016 and reaches 33,000 of the most vulnerable refugee Syrian families (around 218,000 individuals) each month. Now more than ever, this assistance is a lifeline for refugee families to help mitigate the additional challenges they are facing and assist them in meeting their immediate needs like shelter and food. Therefore, and in light of the exceptional circumstances, UNHCR will aim to support an additional 11,500 vulnerable Syrian refugee families who are not receiving multipurpose cash assistance programme with a one-off transfer of USD 175 to help them make ends meet during these difficult time In kind support is also being devised with partner agencies for the most vulnerable within the community, regardless of nationality (including Lebanese host community).
- Can you please let us know, in your view, why is cash assistance important to refugee families and how is it impacting their lives?
Cash assistance enables refugees to meet their essential needs such as shelter, food and medicine. Families are able to withdraw cash from ATMs in Lebanon and afford the goods and services they need most.
Cash-based assistance is an effective and efficient modality to meet refugees’ basic needs, and both refugees and UNHCR value the dignity that cash assistance allows. Injecting cash into the local economy may also contribute to attenuating increasing tensions between refugees and host communities by increasing cash flow in local markets. In this context, cash-based assistance serves as a viable and preferred alternative to in-kind assistance.
The virus has no boundaries between people, between countries. Now’s the time to work together to join forces, join hands, to be here for each other and to leave no one behind.