Lebanon: COVID-19 Exacerbates Already-Impossible Living Situation for Syrian Refugees

In the nine years since the conflict in Syria began, 6.6 million people have fled the country. An estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees have sought safety in Lebanon – making it the largest concentration of refugees per capita in the world. Roughly 38% of the registered refugees are settled in the Bekaa Valley, and nearly half of them live in tents or other temporary structures. 

Since October 2019, Lebanon has been experiencing a deep economic crisis, which has hit the country’s population – especially the refugees it hosts - hard. Syrian refugees have become more economically vulnerable: 55% spent less than $2.90 a day in 2019, and, on average, families were $1,115 in debt in 2019.

Most refugees do not have sufficient access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene services and infrastructure. The national water and sanitation network is weak and, even before the Syrian crisis, in some parts of Lebanon, residents had to use costly techniques typically associated with emergency settings –such as water trucking and desludging – to meet their needs. 

Refugees in informal settlements rely on the limited amount of water brought in through water-trucking, an expensive method that compromises their dignity. Absence of permanent solutions to access to water and sanitation structures, such as connection to municipal water and sanitation networks, contribute to this issue. Together, these factors are increasing refugees’ risk of exposure to infectious and preventable diseases and other health issues. 

When COVID-19 hit Lebanon, citizens were asked to improve their hygiene practices and follow social distancing protocols to slow the spread of the virus. But implementation of these practices in refugee camps - where water is scarce and people depend on humanitarian organizations for water supplies - is particularly difficult. Refugees only receive between seven and nine gallons of water per day, depending on the area where they lived – falling far short of the World Health Organization’s recommended 26 gallons per day. Furthermore, overcrowding and poor sanitation in camps make physical distancing difficult, exposing refugees to enormous health risks.

“We at Action Against Hunger adapted our programming to support the severely vulnerable Syrian refugees in informal camps during this crisis. Our Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene department increased the quantity of trucked water to [10.5 gallons] per person per day and then later [13 gallons]. But even this amount of water is far from enough to cover all household needs for personal hygiene, disinfection of tents, washing of clothes, cooking, and more,” says Beatriz Navarro-Rubio, Country Director for Action Against Hunger in Lebanon.

NASSER: “WHAT SCARES ME MOST IS THAT WE COULD DIE OF HUNGER”

Nasser stands next to his produce truck.

Photo: Joelle Assaf
for Action Against Hunger,
Lebanon

Nasser was forced to leave Syria eight years ago. He sought safety in Arsal, northern Lebanon, and settled with his family in a tent in an informal camp. Life has been difficult at best; although humanitarian organizations provide support, it has not been enough to meet his family’s needs. While he still had his savings to rely on, Nasser covered some minor gaps, but still, he could not meet all of their needs.

Nasser looked for jobs for a very long time, and ultimately decided to use the little resources he had left to buy a small truck to sell vegetables and ever since, he has been driving around refugee camps to sell produce. A few times a week, he buys his products in the city. His truck’s loudspeakers play a recorded message advertising all vegetable prices and available products. He returns late at night after he earns enough to buy new products to sell.

Since October, when Lebanon’s economy started deteriorating, things have become more difficult. Living conditions are becoming harder and prices are increasing drastically on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its related control measures have further exacerbated this situation: the three-month lockdown left people without jobs and many without any income. Being able to buy food is the biggest concern for more than 80% of the country’s refugees.

“With the current situation and the spread of the virus, things are getting even harder,” explains Nasser. “I couldn’t work for weeks, and just resumed my tours across the camps because I need to provide for my family. I’m obviously scared to get infected, but I try to take all the necessary precautions; keeping social distancing and wearing a mask – even if it means extra expenses. But I need to work and make money. We are afraid of famine.”

As he tells his story, the camp seems deserted. Some kids are walking around, a woman stops by, asks for the price for tomatoes and greens. Nasser’s job is getting harder because people cannot afford fruits and vegetables.

“Just look around you. I’ve been here for about 30 minutes, and no one showed up. People are not able to buy vegetables anymore. Many lost their jobs or source of income. The quantity of vegetables I buy used to sell in less than a day, now it takes three to four days to sell everything,” says Nasser.

More and more Syrian refugees are resorting to negative coping mechanisms, including spending less on food. One-third of adult refugees restrict their food consumption so their children can eat. Three out of four refugees have reduced their number of daily meals. Many people rely mainly on loans and credit purchases from shops and neighbous, but even this has become more difficult.

“What scares me most is that we could die of hunger."

“My kids are craving something more substantial to eat, and it’s humiliating for a father not to be able to provide for your family,” says Nasser. “Living conditions are becoming tougher on everyone, not just us. I have three kids…the youngest is just one year old. I can’t even provide a house for my family - imagine living in a tent for such a long time.”

“What scares me most is that we could die of hunger. If the situation persists for another month, we might face that. People cannot afford to pay 2,000-3,000 LBP (less than $1) for vegetables anymore, we’re heading towards starvation.”

REEM: “IT’S HARD TO EXPLAIN TO YOUR KIDS”

“I don’t think that people realize the quantity of water that all of these activities require, washing clothes, cleaning the tent regularly, taking your shower and showering your kids, cooking, drinking, and more,” says Reem, a Syrian Refugee in Lebanon.

Photo: Joelle Assaf
for Action Against Hunger,
Lebanon

Reem, a mother of three in her 30s, has been living in a refugee camp in Arsal in northern Lebanon since 2014. Reem says that living in a tent is one of the hardest things: it is small, dirty, and inconvenient. After humanitarian organizations started providing shelter kits, water tanks and other materials, life became slightly easier.

When COVID-19 knocked on Lebanon’s doors, people’s lives changed abruptly.

Reem says it was particularly hard on her children: “It’s hard to explain to your kids that they can’t play outside anymore because we all need to isolate to prevent the spread of the virus. I sometimes let them go out, but then must make sure that they take all necessary precautions and watch after them.”

She says that keeping the kids and the tent clean requires large quantities of water, and that even the increased amount that they get delivered to the camp does not allow her to be able to follow the most basic COVID-preventive hygiene instructions: “I don’t think that people realize the quantity of water that all of these activities require, washing clothes, cleaning the tent regularly, taking your shower and showering your kids, cooking, drinking, and more. It’s true that we get a larger quantity of water nowadays with the outbreak of COVID-19, but [it's still] not enough.”

Action Against Hunger, as a part of the Lebanon Protection Consortium, distributed hygiene supplies, disinfection kits, and communication materials and organized awareness sessions on COVID-19 in West Bekaa and Arsal, including in the camp where Reem lives.

“It really helped us and relieved the pressure from having to save for basic food items, but these products will last for a month, and the virus is not going anywhere. We might need more support from organizations such as Action Against Hunger in the future. There will be no jobs for us, and therefore no revenue,” she says.

Action Against Hunger is the world’s hunger specialist and leader in a global movement that aims to end life-threatening hunger for good within our lifetimes. For 40 years, the humanitarian and development organization has been on the front lines, treating and preventing hunger across nearly 50 countries. It served more than 21 million people in 2018 alone.