Fear of deportation keeps Syrian refugees from seeking care in Lebanon

MSF patients say discriminatory rhetoric against refugees has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Arsal - Cholera outbreak in Lebanon

Arsal, Bekaa Valley. Lebanon 2023 © Carmen Yahchouchi

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.

Discriminatory rhetoric against refugees in media and political discourse has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, patients have told teams at Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), causing many to forego even essential health care out of concern for their safety.  

The consequences are particularly dire in the neglected area of Arsal, an isolated town in northern Lebanon near the Syrian border, where MSF teams have worked for more than 10 years. 

A climate of fear for refugees

"Everyone is stressed and staying at home, paralyzed by fear,” said 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." Farhat, like many refugees, 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.” 

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,” said Dr. Marcelo Fernandez, MSF head of mission in Lebanon.  

Confiscation of vehicles

Many Syrians have had their cars and motorcycles confiscated due to recent strict enforcement of refugee policies. Often, these vehicles are the only affordable means of transport after Lebanon’s economic crisis caused the cost of taxis and public transport to spiral.  

"I used to rely on my motorcycle to reach the clinic,” said Mahmoud, 56, who receives treatment for diabetes at MSF’s clinic in Arsal. “But the recent regulations prohibit us from using motorcycles, so now I have to make the journey on foot." Mahmoud is one of many patients struggling to come to the clinic for check-ups and to collect their medication. 

"The confiscation of vehicles has left many vulnerable people without a reliable means of transport," said Dr. Fernandez. "This has exacerbated the challenges faced by people who already have limited resources and freedom of movement, further hindering their access to essential medical care." 

Poverty and lack of services in Arsal

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. 

“This situation is untenable,” says Dr Marcelo. “No actions should come at the expense of people’s health. All marginalized groups of people should have access to timely health care, regardless of their background or status.”  

* Names of patients have been changed to protect their identity.   

About MSF in Lebanon

MSF is an independent international medical humanitarian organization providing free health care to people in need, without discrimination. MSF first began working 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 health care, sexual and reproductive care, pediatric 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.