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© Daniel Roy
Dheisheh refugee camp, West Bank. (Photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Covid-19 in the Palestinian refugee camps

Anne Irfan

12 May 2020 

Imposing immobility has been a central plank of many government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdowns in place across much of Europe, the US and Asia rely on the twin pillars of keeping people indoors and keeping them apart from one another through social distancing. Yet in the densely-populated settings of many refugee camps, these two policies can be mutually exclusive. In overcrowded refugee camps, staying in place means being in close proximity to many other people, often without the sanitation facilities for regular hand-washing. Social distancing is therefore near-impossible for many refugees in camps.

While much of the reporting on this issue has looked at overcrowding in tents, the problem is no less severe in older refugee camps with semi-permanent structures, such as those of the Palestinians. Unusual in their longevity, many of the Palestinian refugee camps date back to the early aftermath of the 1948 War, which saw the creation of the state of Israel and the forced exile of more than 700,000 Palestinians. As they and their descendants have remained stateless refugees for more than seven decades now, the camp tents have been replaced by longer-term structures, although they remain acutely overcrowded. Today there are 58 Palestinian refugee camps, located across Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and administered by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

Since the beginning of their exile in 1948, Palestinians have experienced a paradox often central to the refugee experience: what begins with forced migration – the imperative to move – can become defined by enforced immobility. The latter is imposed through physical emplacement in camps, as well as the curtailment of refugees’ basic rights. In the case of the Palestinians, the violation of their human right to movement has been regrettably common, although the details and extent have varied across time and place. For example, in the decades after 1948, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon required permits to leave their camps; to this day, some Palestinian camps in the country are isolated by physical boundaries and pass systems. In the West Bank, the 50-year Israeli military occupation continuously impedes Palestinian mobility by way of blockades, checkpoints, and curfews. Worse still is the restriction of Palestinian movement in Gaza, where the population – nearly 80% of whom are refugees – are enduring their 14th year under siege.

In recent weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has arrived into this environment, where immobility was already the norm for many people. As of May 2020, UNRWA has reported 60 confirmed cases among registered Palestinian refugees across its fields of operation, and 2 deaths. Although these figures are relatively low, the risks to Palestinian refugee communities remain high, not least from the pandemic’s knock-on economic and political effects. Gaza is particularly vulnerable in view of its extremely high population density, poor infrastructure, and poverty. The WHO Chief of Gaza estimates that the territory’s infrastructure can handle a maximum of 300 COVID-19 cases over 3 months; its healthcare sector has 3 ventilators per 100,000 people.

To make matters worse, the impact of the pandemic is compounding many protracted crises in the region, which include not only the siege of the Gaza Strip but also the brutal war in Syria, political protests and economic crisis in Lebanon, and the creeping Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Indeed, many Palestinians have expressed concern that the Netanyahu government is taking advantage of the crisis to accelerate its annexation plans. Meanwhile the Lebanese government has excluded Palestinian refugee residents from boarding repatriation flights, arguing that as non-citizens they are ineligible – despite the fact that many were born in Lebanon. At the same time, the near-collapse of Lebanon’s economy is likely to have a devastating impact on the most precarious groups in society, including Palestinian refugees.

In response to the pandemic, UNRWA has launched an emergency flash appeal, seeking to raise $14 million for its Preparedness & Response Plan (pdf). Yet it is not only international organisations active on the ground. Palestinian refugees themselves are also pioneering new initiatives to combat the virus. In Gaza, for instance, electrical engineer Farouq Sharaf has developed a low-budget ventilator that can be locally produced at low cost, with an initial aim of making 100. Meanwhile, in Beddawi camp in Lebanon, refugees have organised the distribution of information and resources to help keep the community safe; they have also coordinated donations of essential items.

As these examples show, and as has been discussed elsewhere in this blog series, refugees are not only victims of the virus; they are also assets in the fight against it. With camps often unable to act on the standard international advice for dealing with the pandemic, refugees can provide invaluable expertise in coordinating responses suitable for their camp settings. As the pandemic shows little sign of abating in the near future, the role of refugees will only become more important in this sense - and the wider world would be foolish to ignore them.