Refugees and the COVID-19 Vaccine: Low registration rates reflect grim reality

Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab previously stated his aim to vaccinate 80 percent of the population by the end of 2021, but Lebanon’s vaccination roll-out so far shows dim prospects of hitting the target –especially for vulnerable communities such as migrant workers and refugees.

As of 2020, Lebanon houses a total of 1.5 million registered Syrian refugees and an additional 300,000 Palestinian refugees. To receive the COVID-19 vaccine, residents of the country have been asked to register via the country’s newly-introduced IMPACT platform, which sends out an SMS when it is time for vaccination.

The campaign promises to vaccinate anyone and everyone within Lebanon. Yet out of 1.5 million refugees, only 28,630 Syrians and 29,482 Palestinians have registered through the platform.

Out of those registered in Lebanon, 811,367 Lebanese, 7,626 Syrians and 12,517 Palestinians have been vaccinated as of June 7, 2021. How will the Lebanese government fill the gap and vaccinate the full communities of refugees?

The mismanagement and corruption of Lebanese public institutions have forced the country to rely on outside bodies for general aid with its refugee population. The situation remains almost the same with regards to the COVID-19 vaccine, with NGOs, grassroots organizations, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) playing a major role in the process.

“UN agencies in Lebanon, including UNICED, WHO, UNRWA, and UNHCR, are working closely with the Ministry of Public Health and other concerned authorities, and are providing operational support where needed,” said Dalal Harb, a UNHCR spokesperson.

The UNHCR, alongside other UN agencies, cannot procure or administer the vaccines, as Harb says “this remains the prerogative and responsibility of the concerned national authorities.”

Instead, the agencies support “the implementation of the national vaccine roll-out plans, namely in communication and outreach to refugees about vaccination campaigns,” according to Harb.

In the face of vaccine rumours and misconceptions, the UNHCR and UNRWA have sought to raise awareness amongst communities of refugees to encourage more of them to register for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Since day one, UNRWA has been engaged in a wide communications campaign to promote confidence in the coronavirus vaccines and encourage the Palestine refugee community in camps and elsewhere in Lebanon to register to take the vaccine on the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) platform, by raising their awareness regarding the vaccine benefits and how to register on the platform,” says Fadi El-Tayyar, a UNRWA spokesperson.

In order to understand the refugee communities’ hesitancy towards the vaccine, the UNDP has created and disseminated surveys amongst the refugee population.

“Our surveys among the refugee population have reported that the top reason behind the hesitancy towards the vaccine remains the fear of its side effects (53 percent), followed by the fear of contracting the virus (15 percent). These two factors are common to all regions in Lebanon where refugees reside,” said Harb.

“Other reasons such as inability to physically access the vaccine due to disability or illness remains a barrier in certain areas, namely the Bekaa,” he added.

Like UNRWA, the UNHCR has launched a multifaceted communications campaign through social media platforms, call centers and dedicated communication channels to ensure that information on the vaccine is readily available to all.

“So far, we have reached 100 percent of the priority group of more than 7,000 eligible refugees of 75 and above through our call centers. UNHCR’s teams on the ground are assisting refugees to register on the online platform, namely elderly and those with limited or no internet access. To date, 6,194 refugees were reached by our teams and partners,” added Harb. “When needed, we are supporting vaccination centers with the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE’s) and medical supplies for vaccines.”

For refugees who do not have immediate access to electronic devices to register for the vaccine, Harb reaffirmed that the UNHCR’s teams and volunteers are on the ground to provide tablets and smartphones with internet access to help register refugees who choose to obtain the vaccine.

UN agencies are working hard on the ground to ensure that refugees’ have equal access to the vaccine, yet the problem remains with regards to undocumented refugees, as it has with undocumented migrant workers. 

To register for the vaccine on the IMPACT platform, you need some form of identification paper, such as an ID card or passport. While undocumented refugees are allowed to register for the COVID-19 vaccine, they often fear being arrested or deported should they sign up.