Foreigners to healthcare?

Amidst the fast-growing development of the new coronavirus pandemic worldwide, refugee populations in Lebanon have been deeply affected. The right to health of those vulnerable refugees has been neglected, which is a violation of fundamental rights under international law.

Fundamental rights of refugee populations in Lebanon are being violated by UNRWA and the Lebanese State amidst the Covid-19 outbreak.

Amidst the fast-growing development of the new coronavirus pandemic or what has been referred to as ‘Covid-19', the World Health Organisation (WHO) has qualified this virus as the most recent dangerous and deadly disease that can be easily transmitted between humans. For this reason, governments worldwide have expressed their concerns about the ability to limit the expansion of this virus and have called for cities to go into lockdown, home quarantine, limited strolling and extremely high sanitary measures to prevent infection.

In Lebanon, the government has been taking all precautionary measures to limit the spread of this deadly virus by shutting down the country, even closing the airport, and most importantly making available the highest level of sanitation and healthcare to its citizens.

However, the Lebanese Government, that for years now has turned a blind eye to the rights of refugees to access healthcare as well as good sanitary conditions inside refugee camps, has taken the same path in the midst of this coronavirus epidemic. In fact, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has been the main international actor charged with ensuring the rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in the lack of action by the Lebanese State. Since the beginning of the pandemic, UNRWA has been taking certain measures to protect Palestinian refugees located in several camps across Lebanon. Those measures varied from raising awareness with regard to this virus and the need for proper sanitation, to requesting social distancing as much as possible and providing online teaching to those among the refugee population who receive some education. In mid-March an initiative was also set up to promote a collaboration between the Lebanese Ministry of Health, the Lebanese Red Cross, UNRWA and the Palestinians’ representatives to prevent the spread of the coronavirus inside the refugee camps. This initiative was seen as a positive step in the aim of protecting those refugees and limiting the spread of the virus.

Surprisingly, and as if the rights of those refugees have not been violated enough throughout the years, in April UNRWA decided to close its offices in Beirut due to coronavirus, leaving the risks of infections among the population of the Palestinian camps very high. In fact, without UNRWA no protection is guaranteed for Palestinians in Lebanon. It is important to shed light on this negligence towards the right to health and therefore the right to life of refugees in Lebanon during this humanitarian crisis.

The right to health is a fundamental human right that every individual is entitled to according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (Art. 25). Also, since 2002, the Human Rights Council as well as the WHO and other international entities have created the ‘Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’ who would report on measures adopted by States to achieve this end. This right also includes certain entitlements such as “the right to prevention, treatment and control of diseases” and “access to essential medicines” without discrimination. Therefore, by effectively closing its offices in Lebanon and thereby neglecting the right to health of those Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, together with the Lebanese State, are in violation of their legal obligations under international law.

In times of crisis like these, I wonder where do the human rights of vulnerable populations stand? Are refugees neglected and punished only because they lack citizenship? Are they therefore considered foreigners to justice?


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