Palestinian, Syrian refugees in Lebanon camps brace for virus

Lebanon is home to tens of thousands of Palestinians in camps that over the decades have become bustling neighborhoods, and at least 1.5 million Syrians who have fled the war next door. File/AFP)
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Updated 05 April 2020

Palestinian, Syrian refugees in Lebanon camps brace for virus

  • So far just one Palestinian, who lives outside a camp, and three Syrians have tested positive for COVID-19
  • Palestinian and Syrian refugees who live in cramped quarters, including tent camps where basic services like water are poor, are particularly vulnerable to the illness

BEIRUT: Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in overcrowded and rundown camps in Lebanon are bracing for the novel coronavirus as aid groups mobilize to help.
Lebanon is home to tens of thousands of Palestinians in camps that over the decades have become bustling neighborhoods, and at least 1.5 million Syrians who have fled the war next door.
So far just one Palestinian, who lives outside a camp, and three Syrians have tested positive for COVID-19 compared to 520 infections and 17 deaths across Lebanon, according to officials.
But Palestinian and Syrian refugees who live in cramped quarters, including tent camps where basic services like water are poor, are particularly vulnerable to the illness.
“The main concern remains... the spread of coronavirus in the overcrowded Palestine refugee camps where there are very limited possibilities for home isolation,” said Huda Samra, a spokeswoman for the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA.
The agency, she said, is looking to set up “isolation centers” inside the camps to quarantine anybody who needs it.
Similar structures are being set up for Syrians living in close quarters in seas of canvas tents in the east of the country, the UN refugee agency UNHCR says.
But deteriorating cases will have to be evacuated to Lebanese intensive care units, where aid workers fear there may not be enough beds.
Aid organizations have also been ramping up efforts to raise awareness about basic hygiene among both the Syrian and Palestinian communities.
The Norwegian Refugee Council says it has increased water deliveries and supplied soap and bleach to both.
Cars mounted with loudspeakers have been making the rounds of Palestinian camps, blaring messages about hand washing and not touching one’s face.
An AFP photographer recently saw volunteers in sky blue protective suits spray disinfectant in the gloomy narrow streets of the Shatila camp in Beirut.
More than 174,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, according to official figures, with most residing in camps ruled by Palestinian factions beyond the reach of Lebanese security forces.
But unofficial estimates say the Palestinians, whose forefathers fled the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, could number as many as 500,000.
And out of the 1.5 million Syrians Lebanon says it hosts since the civil war broke out in the neighboring country nine years ago, nearly one million are registered with the UNHCR as refugees.
Most of the Syrian refugees live in abject poverty and rely on handouts from aid groups to survive.
In both communities, the United Nations has promised to pay for tests or hospitalization if the need arises.
And because any serious surge in cases among refugees would further burden the Lebanese health care system, efforts are being made to strengthen existing hospitals to face the pandemic.
“We are working with the ministry of public health to support hospitals,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled.
“We will create additional wards with additional beds, including additional intensive care units so there is sufficient response capacity for all communities, Lebanese and refugees,” she said.
Despite all these preparations, non-governmental organizations fear discrimination against refugees will be an added challenge.
Lebanon has seen its population of 4.5 million swell by a third since the start of Syria’s war in 2011.
Many Lebanese blame Syrian refugees for the nation’s economic woes and authorities have often encouraged them to return home.
“Some media reports have made associations between refugees living in unhygienic circumstances and the coronavirus,” said NRC’s advocacy and information adviser in Lebanon, Elena Dikomitis.
“What is really important for us is to make sure people don’t start hiding symptoms or shy away from seeking treatment because of the existing discrimination and stigma.”
Human Rights Watch has said several Lebanese municipalities have imposed curfews to restrict the movement of Syrian refugees because of the virus.
Such action, it warned, could further impede treatment.
Palestinians, who some Lebanese accuse of having sparked the 1975-1990 civil war, face work restrictions and — like many Syrian refugees — live hand to mouth from daily wages.
Now a nationwide lockdown to stem COVID-19 has further battered the economy and impeded their access to jobs, Palestinians have been clamouring for help.
As part of an emergency relief plan, the agency “will be distributing some limited cash assistance in the coming weeks,” UNRWA’s Samra said.


Resumed cargo flights: Thaw in Israel-Turkey ties?

Updated 40 min 50 sec ago

Resumed cargo flights: Thaw in Israel-Turkey ties?

  • Ankara’s involvement in Syria’s Idlib province against the Tehran-backed Assad regime has recently provided a common denominator for Turkey and Israel to reconcile
  • Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians remains a major irritant in relations with Ankara – Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday reiterated his support for the Palestinians

ISTANBUL: Israeli airline El Al has resumed cargo flights twice weekly between Tel Aviv and Istanbul for the first time in 10 years — a sign that decade-long bilateral tensions might be easing.
A cargo flight landed in Istanbul on Sunday morning to pick up humanitarian aid and protective equipment destined for US medical teams fighting COVID-19.
Burhanettin Duran, head of the Ankara-based think tank SETA, wrote that Turkey’s regional empowerment is “obliging Israel to search for normalization steps with Ankara.”
Dr. Nimrod Goren, head of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said the cargo flight is a positive and visible development in bilateral relations that was probably approved by top government officials on both sides and required diplomatic efforts.
“However, the fact that this step takes place in parallel to a discussion about Israeli annexation in the West Bank, and to criticism of annexation by regional and international actors, might impact how it’s viewed in Turkey,” he told Arab News.
Goren said while the Israeli and Turkish governments continue to have significant policy differences, they should work to restore their relations to ambassadorial level, and to relaunch a strategic dialogue on regional developments of mutual interest.
“The forming of a new Israeli government, and the appointment of Gabi Ashkenazi as a new foreign minister, could be an opportunity to do so, and the cargo flight brings some positive momentum,” he added.
Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador in May 2018 after the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Ankara’s involvement in Syria’s Idlib province against the Tehran-backed Assad regime has recently provided a common denominator for Turkey and Israel to reconcile, as it also serves the latter’s strategic interests in weakening the Iranian presence in Syria.
But Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians remains a major irritant in relations with Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday reiterated his support for the Palestinians. 
In a video message on Twitter, he said the issue of Jerusalem “is a red line for all Muslims worldwide.”
He added that Israel’s “new occupation and annexation project … disrespects Palestine’s sovereignty and international law.”
Ryan Bohl, Middle East analyst at geopolitical-risk firm Stratfor, told Arab News: “Turkey is trying to create economic ties with Israel because … Erdogan is finding the political ground changed, caused in part by demographic changes as young Turks are less incensed by the Palestinian issue, and in part by a general weariness among Turks about putting too much skin in the game to solve the Palestinian question,” 
Israel is expected to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank on July 1 under the terms of a coalition government agreement. Ankara has strongly criticized the plan.
Israeli and Turkish officials are rumored to have held talks behind closed doors to reach a deal on maritime borders and exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean. 
Israel’s Foreign Ministry recently said it was “proud of our diplomatic relations with Turkey.”
But Goren said it is currently unlikely that Israel will advance a maritime demarcation deal with Turkey as it would shake several regional balances at the same time.
“It will put in jeopardy, and run in contrast to, the important alliances in the eastern Mediterranean that Israel has fostered in recent years with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt,” he added.