Leaving Syrian refugees behind in the vaccination drive is self-defeating

Not inoculating them leaves many countries vulnerable to the pandemic’s aftershocks

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Next month, the EU will host the fifth Brussels Conference, which is meant to renew international diplomatic support to UN-backed efforts to find a resolution to the crisis in Syria, as well as pledging humanitarian aid commitments to the country’s long-suffering populace, including its refugees.

The UN-backed process has been moribund for years, with no real incentive for international powers competing on the ground to find a political solution to a conflict that has been decided militarily. The US has yet to indicate how it plans to re-engage with the crisis under the administration of President Joe Biden, and an effort to draft a new post-war constitution is largely dead in the water due to government intransigence.

And yet there is great urgency to address the ongoing refugee crisis, which continues to fester even if no major crises on the ground are driving people to flee the country in large numbers. The international community must renew its support by finding new ways to integrate Syrians abroad or resettle them beyond Syria's neighbouring countries, to ensure they have access to coronavirus vaccinations and to allow them to continue living peacefully instead of forcing them to return to a homeland where they risk detention, or worse.

Displaced Syrians demonstrate against President Bashar al-Assad and the upcoming presidential election in the rebel-held city of Idlib on February 19, 2021. / AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR
Displaced Syrians demonstrate against President Bashar Al Assad and the upcoming presidential election in the rebel-held city of Idlib on February 19, 2021. AFP

Half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million has been displaced in the course of the war, which is about to enter its 11th year. Of those, around 5.6 million have fled beyond the borders of the country to its neighbours, making them refugees. Most of the total number of refugees live in neighbouring countries – 3.6 million in Turkey, close to a million in Lebanon and about 660,000 in Jordan, according to official UN figures. These numbers are usually underestimates, which puts into perspective the collective freak out and right-wing backlash of European nations when refugees tried to seek safe haven there in 2015.

But the fact that the crisis has endured for so long does not make it less urgent or absolve the international community of responsibility. Even as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, the deprivation of life as a refugee in the region continues, along with unequal access to health care that could prolong the pandemic’s tail in the Middle East.

These realities are presented in a stark assessment released this week by Refugee Protection Watch, a coalition of NGOs working on the ground with refugees, and which are based on interviews with over 400 refugees and their Lebanese hosts in December and January, and which paint a terrible picture of destitution.

According to the survey, 83.8 per cent of Lebanese and 77 per cent of Syrian respondents said they did not make enough income to meet the cost of living, a result that has likely been exacerbated by Lebanon's ongoing financial crisis and the carnage that followed the Beirut explosion last August.

Those hoping to emerge from this poverty are out of luck, because one-third of Lebanese and Syrians couldn’t find jobs in their area of residence and nearly half of the Syrians had trouble obtaining a work permit that would even allow them to work legally.

Even more shameful, an incredible 88 per cent of Syrians surveyed said they had no access to health care or treatment in the event they contract Covid-19. It is still unclear how much access refugee communities will have to coronavirus vaccines, given the limited number of doses available to developing countries such as Lebanon, but it's likely that refugees will not be prioritised, especially since those who apply for vaccinations will have to have proper documentation. Jordan is an exception. Last week, people living in Zaatari became the first refugees inside a camp to receive a coronavirus vaccine, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Even as the world grapples with Covid-19, the deprivation of life as a refugee in the Middle East continues

Another dangerous trend is the growing pressure on refugees to return, something that three quarters of the respondents say they feel. Both in Turkey and Lebanon, as well as in some parts of Europe where anti-immigrant rhetoric still reigns, this drumbeat enjoys steady support, despite the dangers for returnees. Turkey has encouraged Syrians to go to areas of their country that have been secured by Ankara-backed militias (who have carried out numerous abuses), and the Lebanese government is studying a returnee plan to alleviate some of the pressure in Lebanon. But there are many reports of returnees who have been detained or forcibly disappeared upon going home, especially among activists. The country also remains in the grips of a boundless economic crisis that has impoverished a staggering number of Syrians despite the war’s end.

It is often tempting to ignore the plight of refugees; with donor fatigue and the war retreating from the headlines, the moral imperative seems to grow less urgent. But the longer the crisis festers, the longer it threatens to further destabilise Syria’s neighbours, particularly at a time of greater economic hardship. And leaving refugees behind in the vaccination drive will leave countries vulnerable to the pandemic’s aftershocks, especially given the slow speed of vaccinations in the developing world and even among the region’s wealthier countries.

Helping Syria’s refugees is the right thing to do, but it is also the sensible thing to do.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National