Mohammed actually is one of many Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who are affected by the wave of misinformation that accompanied the covid-19 crisis until today, in addition to the old fashioned concepts and traditions that consider every novelty as the enemy.
On the other hand, Maher Al-Masry, a Syrian refugee and activist in Arsal region, pointed out to the spread of fear of vaccination among the refugees, stressing that the ongoing awareness campaigns are not enough and people are reluctant to register on IMPACT platform created by the Lebanese Ministry of Health in order to benefit from various vaccines.
Al-Masry added that "traditions and fear of victimization prompted the refugees to neglect the issue of vaccination, knowing that Arsal region, northern Beqaa, is currently the home of 70,000 refugees alone."
He told Rozana: “Here in Arsal, you feel as if the coronavirus does not exist. No one wears a mask, people shake hands, shop, and stand in crowds. No one is afraid of the virus and no one thinks of getting the vaccine either, except perhaps a few,” noting that "people here are indifferent."
During the various tours made by Rozana’s journalists in the refugee camps in Lebanon, since the outbreak of the covid-19 crisis until today, the lack of awareness was clear, including the way people regard the vaccine issue now. If contracting the virus is accompanied by fear of shame and social stigma towards the infected person, the vaccine today seems terrifying and triggers many Syrians to feel targeted; especially after all the hardships they have been through.
Activist Muhammad Al-Dhaibi explained to Rozana that "the chaotic vaccines’ situation has extended to affect everyone, from the Lebanese citizens to the refugees and many other groups. There are poor areas in northern Lebanon, such as Tripoli and Akkar, where a number of elderly people did not receive the vaccines, despite the fact that that they are on top of the list of target groups, and the same happens with refugees, knowing that the camps of the north suffer mainly from chaos and the lack of necessary services and awareness.
As of 24 May 2021, 28,226 Syrians are registered on IMPACT platform, which is a disappointing number, if we really want to vanquish the epidemic once and for all. Thus, about 7,500 refugees have been vaccinated (as of writing this report), according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which we have contacted.
The UNHCR stated that “100 per cent of the priority group that includes more than 7,000 refugees aged 75 and above have been reached by the UN body through our contact centres."
The UNHCR teams on the ground help refugees register on the online vaccination platform, especially elderly persons and those who have limited or no internet access.
The UN organization asserted: “So far, our teams and partners have reached 6,194 refugees. We support vaccination centres when needed by providing personal protective equipment (PPE’s) and medical supplies for vaccination.”
Vaccinating about 7,500 refugees months after the start of the vaccination campaign is considered as an insignificant rate, knowing that Lebanon received 865,531 Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR, in addition to other unregistered asylum seekers. Consequently, only about 0.8 percent of Syrian refugees have already received the vaccine, i.e. less than 1 percent!
At this point, it seems necessary to ask the following question: what happened to the 600,000 doses of vaccine that Pfizer handed to Lebanon free of charge as a refugee-hosting country? Why did the Syrian refugees receive only a few thousand of these doses, contrary to what was promised by the Lebanese Minister of Public Health Hamad Hasan?
The UNHCR said that the refugees were subject to the categories and priorities set forth by the health ministry’s plan, and did not receive any vaccines destined specifically for them; knowing that Lebanon purchased these vaccines with loan granted to Beirut by the World Bank, which stipulated, along with other international organisations, that the displaced people and refugees would receive vaccines exactly like the Lebanese citizens.
However, the percentage of Syrian and Palestinian refugees who were vaccinated confirms that Lebanon’s promises did not materialise, and that discrimination and racism could affect even a purely health issue.
Ahmed, a Syrian activist in the refugee camps of northern Lebanon (who refused to reveal his full name for security reasons), said that registering on the official platform to receive the vaccine is not totally safe.
“Syrians are afraid to disclose their data, personal information, and their places of residence and social status, because of the dangers they may be exposed to regarding their safety and the safety of their families; in addition to the fact that a large proportion of those Syrians have issues with obtaining identification and residency documents, and thus the process of registering for the vaccine becomes fraught with danger of getting arrested or being subjected to security harassment by the Lebanese authorities, especially the Lebanese Directorate of General Security,” the activist added.
Some municipalities, including the municipality of Zgharta, launched awareness-raising activities targeting the refugees and initiated vaccination campaigns, but of course this endeavour remains limited in place and number, as major efforts at the state level and from the part of the donor-organisations responsible for refugees are still needed to maintain the whole process.
With the pandemic crisis gradually shrinking and the decreasing numbers of daily infection cases and fatalities, in addition to the arrival of additional batches of vaccines, it seems necessary to highlight the importance of launching awareness campaigns in the refugee communities and allocating vaccination campaigns targeting specifically the camps’ residents, in addition to explaining the importance of the vaccine to them and ensure protection for those who have security concerns.
Public health, which concerns everybody, is more crucial than a residence permit that a refugee could not obtain!