Refugees in Lebanon receive wider, cheaper access to hospital services

Making a Difference, 28 January 2011

© UNHCR/A.Yungrova
Iraqi refugee children draw in a community centre in Beirut. The new agreement is good news for their health care.

BEIRUT, Lebanon, January 28 (UNHCR) A landmark cooperation agreement, supported by UNHCR and Lebanon's Health Ministry, will allow refugees to receive medical treatment at four state-run hospitals around Lebanon at affordable prices.

The cooperation agreement was signed last week in Beirut by representatives of the four hospitals and some of UNHCR's local implementing partners. It follows similar recent agreements with five private health facilities across Lebanon.

Before the agreement, Iraqi refugees in Lebanon only had access to basic health services at reasonable rates, but access to emergency services was often denied and hospital treatment was beyond the means of most refugees and much more expensive than that charged for Lebanese citizens.

The latest agreement has been welcomed by Iraqi refugees, UNHCR and the government. "The state cannot see a person die and turn its face away. We have taken up our responsibilities as a state," Health Minister Mohammad Khalifeh said at the signing ceremony.

"Today we can say that not only does Lebanon stand apart from many nations in its appreciation and commitment to good health for its citizens, but that it extends this consideration to refugees," added Ninette Kelley, UNHCR's representative in Lebanon.

With quality medical care becoming more accessible and affordable for registered refugees, their health will improve, as will the health of the communities in which they live.

Among the first to benefit from the new arrangement was 20-year-old Hussein, who had been mutilated by militants in Baghdad before fleeing to Lebanon last year. One foot had been partially amputated and the toes on the other chopped off, while his legs were badly burned.

Hussein urgently needed surgery costing US$8,000 to save his legs, but he could not afford it. He approached UNHCR for help in applying for asylum and also sought the agency's help for immediate medical care.

"I had no money for the surgery. I had to borrow money from friends to live. So I approached UNHCR and they helped me," he said, sitting on his hospital bed. Under the cooperation agreement, the surgery cost half the price Hussein would have had to pay as a private patient. UNHCR and one of its partners shared the costs.

But for some refugees, like 28-year-old Wajiha, the agreement has come too late. The pregnant mother of three, who fled from Iraq 11 years ago with her family, went into labour prematurely and needed urgent medical care.

Wajiha had trouble getting admission to the hospitals she went to in Beirut last year because they required that refugees pay the full fees in advance or show proof of payment from UNHCR or its partners.

"I was rejected by two hospitals even though I presented my UNHCR refugee card. Finally I found one that admitted me," she recalled. "I had the baby immediately after I was admitted. The baby and I were not well and a week later my child died."

She mused that if the agreement with the hospitals had been in force, "maybe I wouldn't have lost the baby." With the new arrangement, the more than 9,000 mostly Iraqi registered refugees in Lebanon will feel more reassured about gaining access to crucial health care without having to worry about the cost.

By Wafa Amr and Ziad Ayad in Beirut, Lebanon