COVID-19 vaccination for refugees lags in west Asia

Most refugees living in poor countries in West and South Asia are being left behind in the vaccination programmes being undertaken by the respective governments for several reasons, including a shortage of adequate number of vaccine doses

April 14, 2021 by Abdul Rahman
A vaccine drive in Palestine. Photo: Luay Sababa/Xinhua

There are more than 79 million displaced people in the world today, of which 26 million are refugees, according to data by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, most of the countries where millions of these refugees live are unable to devise a clear position on their inclusion in the respective COVID-19 vaccination drives, despite a UNHCR call to all nations to include them. Under these circumstances, safeguarding the right to life of refugees has become challenging.  

While some West Asian countries have recently announced inclusion of refugees in their national vaccine drive, the actual numbers remain low. Given the high numbers of refugees in many of the West Asian countries and their poor economic conditions, individual state-led initiatives may not be enough to achieve substantial vaccination. Since all of these countries are dependent on vaccine imports, increased international initiatives and vaccine production is required to achieve “vaccine equity.” 

Vaccination drives by West Asian states

Lebanon has the world’s highest per capita concentration of refugees. There are around a million Syrian and over 450,000 Palestinian refugees in the country. Though the government has announced the inclusion of all refugees in its vaccination drive which started on February 14, very few refugees have been vaccinated yet. As per reports, only 18% of the Palestinian and 17% of the Syrian refugees eligible for the vaccines have received it so far. Al Jazeera reported that up till April 11, only 3% of all people vaccinated in Lebanon were non-citizens.   

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the percentage of refugees registered for vaccination in Lebanon is less in comparison to the local citizens. The main reason behind this is rumors and misgivings about the ill effects of the vaccines and unfamiliarity with the process as most of the refugees have so far dealt with UN agencies and not the Lebanese state authorities.  

Lebanon has bought over 2.1 million Pfizer BioNTech vaccine doses although it has not got all the doses, and is expected to receive 2.7 million doses of COVAX, with the stated objective of vaccinating at least 90% of its total population. However, in addition to the possible need of buying more vaccines, Lebanon is already facing delays in delivery due to production shortage. The country may need further external help to acquire more vaccines as the economy is in a very bad shape. The current vaccination drive is being supported by USD 34 million aid under the Lebanon Health Resilience Project and monitored by the Red Cross.  

There are at least 2.4 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, where the state has included refugees in its national vaccination drive. The government is working with the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRAW) to ensure that at least 90% of its population is vaccinated. However, the pace of vaccination is slow, mostly due to the non-availability of enough doses. 

Except for the Gulf Cooperation Council member states, other countries in the region such as Iraq have not brought in any specific policy related to refugees yet. 

More international initiatives required

Qatar’s Red Crescent, in collaboration with the WHO, has announced a USD 100 million “humanitarian initiative” to vaccinate displaced persons and refugees in at least 20 countries. The campaign began on Monday, April 12, and will run for three years. The objective is to inoculate at least 3.65 million of the most vulnerable refugees from across the world with focus on Afghanistan, Occupied Palestinian territories, Yemen, northern Syria and Bangladesh. These countries will get 400,000 doses of vaccine each. While the initiative is a welcome move, the numbers are highly inadequate.  

Last week, the US resumed its financial support to the UNRAW with USD 150 million in aid with some additional provisions for COVID-19 relief. The UN refugee agency is expected to use these funds to take measures to provide relief to Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and in Jordan and Lebanon. 

Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories are already part of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) vaccination program, which began in February after a delay due to Israel’s refusal to provide the vaccines on time. Vaccines coming from Russia, China and under COVAX initiative countries are the backbone of the PA’s vaccination drive. As of Sunday, April 11, more than 140,900 Palestinians had received at least the first dose of the vaccine.  

The international COVAX initiative under GAVI and WHO has so far been unable to meet the requirements of vaccine supply to poor countries primarily due to shortages in global production. The refusal of rich countries in the World Trade Organization to allow the suspension of intellectual property rights related to vaccine production has also adversely impacted vaccine availability. Lack of enough vaccine doses can lead to strict adherence to “priority lists,” which may exclude non-citizens or make them wait longer, given the political compulsions in some countries.The only way to achieve vaccine equity is through wider acceptance of the fact that no one is safe until everyone is safe, including the millions of refugees/displaced persons, and to get eliminate the mad race of vaccine hoarding and vaccine nationalism by rich countries.   

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