Lebanese hotline set up to handle surge in COVID-19 domestic violence cases

A street vendor pushes his cart in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in the Beirut suburbs. (Reuters)
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Updated 03 April 2020

Lebanese hotline set up to handle surge in COVID-19 domestic violence cases

  • The majority of reported attacks have been against women and girls.
  • The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lebanon on Thursday rose by 15 to 494, with 16 deaths and 43 recoverie

BEIRUT: Lebanese authorities have set up a dedicated domestic violence hotline to deal with a surge in cases of physical, sexual and psychological abuse since the introduction of home quarantine over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

According to the National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW), the majority of reported attacks have been against women and girls.

An NCLW spokesperson said: “The psychological pressures caused by the home quarantine in these circumstances (the COVID-19 pandemic), in addition to the economic pressures, have contributed to an increase of physically, morally, psychologically, emotionally and sexually abusive practices inflicted by violent individuals on abused women and girls.”

The NCLW, in cooperation with Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF), has established a special phoneline linked to the ISF’s operations room along with a website for abuse victims and witnesses to report incidents of domestic violence.

Lt. Col. Joseph Msallam, head of the ISF’s public relations division, told Arab News: “March has seen a rise in the number of domestic violence complaints, which reached 48 cases. We quickly move to stop the perpetrators by order of the judicial authorities.

“People are losing their temper, and we have seen an increase in quarrels that occur for ridiculous reasons such as car parking. There was a case recorded in a southern suburb of Beirut a few days ago that developed into a murder.”

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lebanon on Thursday rose by 15 to 494, with 16 deaths and 43 recoveries. 

Three patients were reported to be in a critical condition and over a period of 24 hours, 539 lab tests were carried out on people suspected of having contracted the virus.

A Lebanese doctor, George Antar, was reported by the National News Agency to have died in Brazil after being infected while treating COVID-19 patients in hospitals in San Paolo. He was in his 60s and from the town of Dakwa town in western Bekaa.

The Lebanese Ministry of Health and infectious disease specialists, meanwhile, warned that the number of COVID-19 cases in the country could be twice the official count.

Reviewing measures taken by the government over the past two weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19, Health Minister Hamad Hassan said: “The data to date is good, but the situation remains precarious and fraught with caution.

“If our society follows the instructions and guidance, it will successfully prevent the worst, which is the quick spread of the disease, similar to what happened in different countries around the world. We saw that no health system was able to cope with the epidemic when it had invaded society.

“The local spreading rate is still low due to the commitment of the fearful and disciplined community. The number of cases was doubling every five days, but today and with the efforts of everyone, we are close to reaching the goal of the number doubling every 10 days.”

However, the minister added: “Lebanon is still at risk, and sliding would be very dangerous and fast if we do not know how to manage the battle.”

As reports continued to be made of people violating home quarantine and night curfew rules, the Lebanese Army Command took to social media to urge citizens to “stay home and refrain from wandering unless it is absolutely necessary (to leave the house).”

During a Cabinet session on Thursday, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab was said to have hinted at taking “harsh measures in response to the violations that are happening.”

Meanwhile, the government was reconsidering its plan to fly home Lebanese expatriates trapped abroad by the COVID-19 outbreak after its proposed mechanism was rejected by a number of countries.

Director general of civil aviation at Rafic Hariri International Airport, Fadi Al-Hassan, said: “The number of people who wish to return to Lebanon and have registered their names in the Lebanese embassies ranges between 20,000 and 22,000 Lebanese expatriates, as per the figures of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Addressing the Cabinet meeting on the issue, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said: “The return of Lebanese expatriates from abroad requires careful organization because the steady increase in their number necessitates applying exceptional measures that guarantee the safety of the returnees and their surroundings.”

Diab said: “We are forced to make changes to the return mechanism, and the tests (for COVID-19) will be conducted at the airport in Beirut. This will require a great effort.”

Agreement was also reached on the return of Lebanese students from abroad, especially those struggling financially due to the Lebanese banks’ restrictions on the transfer of dollars to foreign countries.

The Amal Movement and Hezbollah were preparing to quarantine returnees, including their supporters from African countries, in dedicated hotels in the south of the country.

The two parties have tried to reassure residents in the areas that will host the returnees. During a visit to the Khiam border region on Thursday, Hezbollah MP Ali Fayyad said: “Strict measures will be taken to prevent the situation from going out of control.”

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

Updated 21 September 2020

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

  • Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
  • Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.

It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.

Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.

The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”

When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.

Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.


45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer

1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker

During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.

The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.

An oil spill would devastate the livelihoods of nearly four million Yemeni people, with fishing stocks taking 25 years to recover. (AFP)

In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.

In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.

As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”

In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.

Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.

Yemeni NGO Holm Akhdar says 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their jobs in the case of a disaster.

“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.

“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.

For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.

But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.


Twitter: @saeedalBatati