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COVID-19 Coverage

Syrian Refugees In Lebanon Are Scared To Get Tested For The Coronavirus


Let's turn overseas now. As the pandemic spreads, people in some countries are too afraid of being deported to seek medical help. This is a concern all over the world. It is particularly acute in Lebanon. NPR's Alice Fordham reports there are more than a million Syrian refugees there, many with expired paperwork.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: To get an idea of how Syrian refugees are getting on in Lebanon, we call a woman who lives in an informal camp.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: "There are 60 tents in rows of five, barely any space between each tent."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Water is scarce. Regular hand-washing isn't an option."

We're speaking with Um Mustafa (ph), or Mustafa's mom. We don't use her real name because she's afraid of the government in Damascus. Her husband disappeared on a trip back to Syria, presumably arrested by government forces. She's horrified by the idea of being sent back there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: She says, "I would never agree to go back until every Syrian in Lebanon had gone back first."

The overstretched Lebanese government says there are about 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. They deported thousands last year, as well as demolishing shelters and cracking down on working without authorization, according to Human Rights Watch. This means people who suspect they might have the virus are afraid, says Mohamed Taleb (ph), who works with the charity Basma and Zeitouneh.

MOHAMED TALEB: They might seek help, and they might get the help. But after that, no one knows what will happen - whether they will force them to return to Syria because they're undocumented.

FORDHAM: He says the refugees he works with feel conflicted.

TALEB: They're in constant fear and confusion because they might have some (inaudible) and they're too afraid to reach out.

FORDHAM: It's an issue concerning advocates for undocumented people and refugees around the world. Here in Lebanon, the United Nations Refugee Agency strongly denies that any refugee would face scrutiny of their status while seeking testing or treatment. Here's spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled.

LISA ABOU KHALED: We're always repeating to refugees that they should not see any obstacle to reaching out to UNHCR or the Ministry of Public Health if they feel that they're showing symptoms and if they would like to seek support for testing or medical treatment.

FORDHAM: A spokesman for the Lebanese security forces, Gen. Nabil Hanoun (ph), said in a text message to NPR that no Syrian seeking treatment would be sent back to Syria. Refugees, like anyone, can now call an ambulance to get testing and treatment, which would get them through checkpoints they normally fear.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Everyone here has outdated residences and papers that aren't up to date," Um Mustafa says. But she thinks people should and will seek help because your health is more important than papers, more important than anything in the world.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.