As of May 2017, Lebanon has been hosting at least 1.1 million Syrian refugees, which has created an additional burden on the authorities and left Syrian refugees unable to access proper healthcare.
Syrian refugees face an overstretched system in which the services generally available to refugees are limited. The fragmented Lebanese healthcare system and the variety of actors involved within it, such as international NGOs, charities, religious organizations and public entities, might confuse refugees seeking medical assistance. Additionally, international organizations have the obligation to coordinate their actions with the minister of health. They are not authorized to open their own field hospitals and the bureaucracy of the administration may create additional obstacles.
The legal status of Syrian refugees also represents a barrier to accessing healthcare. Since the Lebanese government instituted a policy ending the free entrance of Syrian refugees to Lebanon in October 2014, 70% of Syrian refugees currently have no legal status in the country. A study conducted by the Norwegian Refugees Council highlighted that 65% of the refugees refrain from traveling to medical facilities because they fear being arrested at checkpoints for not having valid legal status. Another 55% highlighted the cost of treatment as a main obstacle. In order to reduce the cost of treatment and facilitate refugees’ access to medical facilities, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is passing new contracts with hospitals across Lebanon.
Despite the efforts of UNHCR and other NGOs to provide refugees with adequate access to health care, some are still denied this fundamental right. Syrian refugees are sometimes advised by doctors to return to Syria for treatment. One NGO worker said, “I often hear from other workers in the field that people sometimes go back to Syria for certain medical interventions because they’re free of charge there. So basically, they would rather risk their lives to access the treatment, than stay here where they can’t afford it. And then of course, for those who can’t go back, their health situation would deteriorate”.
Lebanon is not party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 and has no special law for refugees. Refugee status is normally controlled by the Law Regulating the Entry and Stay of Foreigners in Lebanon and their Exit from the Country, enacted in 1962. In order to address the legal void left by the absence of specific legal framework regulating the legal status of refugees, Lebanon signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UNHCR to deliver temporary residence permits to refugees. However, the right to health is not guaranteed by this arrangement. International customary law requires countries to respect the leading principles of refugee protection. Lebanon must therefore, under international human rights law, guarantee Syrian refugees adequate access to healthcare as a fundamental human right.