Syrian refugees in Lebanon are finding it increasingly difficult to access vital medical services due to reports of forced deportation and restrictions on their freedom of movement. Teams from Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and their partners have heard from patients that the situation is being exacerbated by discriminatory rhetoric against refugees, creating concerns for their safety and an environment of fear.
The atmosphere of intimidation has left many refugees afraid to leave the safety of their homes, even to seek essential medical care. The situation is particularly severe in the neglected area of Arsal, an isolated town in north Lebanon near the Syrian border, where MSF teams have worked for more than 10 years.
"Everyone is stressed and staying at home, paralysed by fear,” says Farhat, 75, a Syrian refugee who has been receiving treatment for diabetes at MSF’s clinic in Arsal for nine years. “No one has the courage to venture outside, even for basic necessities." He is fearful of being arrested by authorities and deported from Lebanon. "I am afraid they would take me, humiliate me and then forcefully expel me from the country,” he says, adding that many others share his concerns.
Over the past two weeks, MSF teams have noticed increasing numbers of missed appointments at their clinic, reportedly due to patients’ fears of facing deportation as they navigate checkpoints to reach health facilities.
MSF teams also report that the climate of fear is impacting their ability to make urgent medical referrals to hospitals. "We had a patient who, despite requiring urgent medical care, refused to be referred to a hospital out of sheer terror of deportation, knowing that he is unregistered,” says Dr Marcelo Fernandez, MSF head of mission in Lebanon.
The recent strict enforcement of policies and restrictions regarding refugees in Lebanon has resulted in many Syrians having their cars and motorcycles confiscated. Often, these vehicles were their only affordable means of transport after the economic crisis caused the cost of taxis and public transport to spiral.
Mahmoud, 56, is receiving treatment for diabetes at MSF’s clinic in Arsal, which is 5 km from his home. He is one of many patients who now struggle to come to the clinic for check-ups and to collect their medication. "I used to rely on my motorcycle to reach the clinic,” he says, “but the recent regulations prohibit us from using motorcycles, so now I have to make the journey on foot."
Many of Arsal’s residents live in poverty, while services and infrastructure in the area are limited. Both Lebanese residents and refugees face significant challenges in accessing essential services, both within and beyond the town.
"The confiscation of vehicles has left many vulnerable people without a reliable means of transport," says Dr Marcelo Fernandez. "This measure has exacerbated the challenges faced by individuals who already have limited resources and freedom of movement, further hindering their access to essential medical care."
“This situation is untenable,” says Dr Marcelo. “No actions should come at the expense of people’s health. All marginalised groups of people should have access to timely healthcare, equally, regardless of their background or status.”
* Names of patients have been changed to protect their identity.
MSF is an independent international medical humanitarian organisation providing free healthcare to people in need, without discrimination. MSF first began work in Lebanon in 1976 and its teams have worked in the country without interruption since 2008. MSF teams currently work in seven locations across Lebanon, providing free medical care for vulnerable communities, including Lebanese citizens, refugees and migrant workers. MSF’s services include mental healthcare, sexual and reproductive healthcare, paediatric care, vaccinations and treatment for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes. With more than 700 staff in Lebanon, MSF teams provide around 150,000 medical consultations every year.