Many of the 5.6 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, who had previously scraped by on meagre daily wages now find even that is denied them as the coronavirus pandemic forces their host countries into shutdown.
The Lebanese have themselves been hit by a financial crisis that has evaporated jobs and sent prices soaring, and have become less tolerant of the Syrians who have boosted the population by around 1.5 million to some 6 million.
In Jordan, the Zaatari camp, home to 80,000 Syrian refugees, has been closed off by the authorities during a two-month lockdown, meaning those who used to go out to work on farms every day can no longer do so.
Jordan hosts some 900,000 refugees in all, most of whom live outside the camps.
In Turkey, since the economy tipped into a brief recession two years ago, the public mood towards Syrians has soured, with some saying they have driven down wages and taken jobs from locals.
Many of the three and a half million Syrian refugees work as day labourers in construction and manufacturing, especially textile factories – sectors that have been hard hit by the pandemic curbs.
Unlike millions of Turkish workers who lost their wages, Syrians do not benefit from government aid packages but can apply for food aid from local municipalities. Still, many have no basic protection against the virus.
More refugees say they are worried about starving than about the virus, said Mireille Girard, representative of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Lebanon.
In a survey last month, UNHCR found 70% were going hungry, while many could not buy soap. Since Syria’s war erupted nine years ago, many have languished in crowded camps where aid workers fear any COVID-19 outbreak would be rapid and lethal.
But even as businesses return to work after the government eased curbs this week, job losses are on the rise, making more Syrians dependent on already strained aid efforts.
UNHCR is getting more calls for help from refugee families who had been largely self-reliant, said Dominik Bartsch, its Jordan representative.
Some Syrians said their accumulating debts had forced them to sell U.N. food coupons to pay for rent and basic goods.
In a camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, which authorities have sealed off during the lockdown, Younes Hamdou cannot find bread. Clean water is also scarce, illness rife and social distancing nearly impossible.
“We are prisoners … We have no immunity because of the lack of food,” he said. “Lebanese people have gone hungry, Syrians have gone hungry. Everyone is hungry.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)