BEIRUT // Over the past five years, more than one million Syrians have fled to Lebanon hoping to find the safety, stability and future that civil war has stripped from their homeland. Instead, many found exploitation and in some cases slavery.
Last month, Lebanese police raided a sex-trafficking ring in Maameltein, a seaside town about 20 kilometres north of Beirut, and found dozens of women locked up in prison-like brothels.
The 75 women, most of them Syrian, were lured with the promise of jobs at hotels and restaurants in Lebanon’s most well-known red light district.
When they arrived, they were beaten and filmed while being raped. Phones and identification papers were seized. If they ran, they were told, compromising photos of them would be sent to their families and posted on the internet.
Their captors said there was no use in going to the police since many officials in the security services were customers.
Dissent was met with beatings with wooden clubs and crude whips made of cables wrapped in electrical tape. Cigarettes were extinguished on flesh. Food was withheld.
The women lived in rooms that resembled cells, with metal bars over the windows and heavy, locked doors. Guards kept careful watch on them. Barred from using condoms and without access to other contraceptives, they were forced to get abortions from a doctor who performed 200 such procedures for the ring in recent years.
The money they generated went to the gang. They were slaves.
“We were not treated as human beings,” said one of the 75 women, a Syrian from Aleppo, who was released at the end of March. “We were nothing but commodities for sale,” she said, according to testimony given to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
She was just 17 years old.
The young woman was violently forced into prostitution by her husband last year not long after they were married. When she discovered she was pregnant later in the year, she was forced to undergo an abortion and made to receive customers again just three days later.
Lebanon’s controversial regulations on refugees are making them increasingly vulnerable according to aid workers, creating an environment ripe for abuse.
To register with the Lebanese government, refugees must sign a pledge not to work. Many work anyway.
Forced to pay their own way in Lebanon with insufficient aid, it is the only way to survive. But working illegally puts them at increased risk of exploitation and forced labour.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, a public information officer with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. “The reality is that the increasing vulnerabilities of refugees, their increasing needs, their insufficient resources, their increasing debt and poverty is unfortunately pushing more children into the worst kinds of child labour – and is exposing women to forms of exploitation.”
In addition to not being allowed to work, refugees have found it more and more difficult to maintain legal status in Lebanon. Many cannot afford the US$200 (Dh735) annual fee for residency papers or lack the necessary documents to register with the government.
To have legal standing, refugees also require a copy of a lease with a landlord and an attestation from a local official called a mukhtar – both requirements that create relationships that can be exploited.
The lack of legal standing in Lebanon puts refugees in a situation where they are afraid to report abuse and have little chance of recourse even if they go to the authorities.
“The structures and regulations in place in Lebanon to deal with refugees mean that it’s very likely that their vulnerability will translate into exploitation,” said Audrey Guichon, a senior programme officer with the Freedom Fund, a private donor initiative dedicated to fighting slavery. “It is an issue that is unlikely to disappear unless some critical and assertive action is taken by the Lebanese government and also by the international donor community and international organisations.”
In a report released earlier this month, the Freedom Fund said it was increasingly concerned about slavery and exploitation of refugees manifesting itself in the forms of child labour, child brides, women forced into prostitution and forced labour.
The report said forced labour – often as a condition of rent for cash-strapped refugees – was so prevalent it was considered “the norm” by some interviewees. The report cited an unnamed “leading” non-governmental organisation as estimating that between 60 and 70 per cent of Syrian children in Lebanon work.
Tip of the iceberg
While the case of the enslaved Syrian women in Maameltein is the most extreme case of the exploitation of Syrians in Lebanon, it may not be an isolated incident.
“I think the 75 women being rescued is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Ms Guichon. “Unfortunately, it’s likely there is a lot more going on.”
Ms Abou Khaled, the UNHCR officer, said documenting cases of sexual violence and exploitation among refugees is a difficult task.
“We have to remember that in Lebanon and in the culture of Syrian refugees there is a strong social stigma and it is very difficult for women to approach us and admit they were victims of sexual or gender-based violence or that they were working in prostitution,” she said. “It’s always, unfortunately, a very underreported problem.”
Just as the dire economic situation and legal restrictions force families into sending children to work and forced labour agreements with landlords, women are also more pressured to turn to prostitution.
“The vulnerability is increasing on the side of the refugees because of the war, because of also the policies of the state in Lebanon regarding refugees, it leaves them no real options for living or working,” said Maya Ammar, communications coordinator at Kafa, a Lebanese organisation that works against gender violence and the exploitation of women.
Ms Ammar said the way the government treats sex workers now – often by arresting and prosecuting them – creates an obstacle for women trying to escape prostitution.
“They are not really encouraged to speak up or escape – even if they were able to – because there are no clear protection mechanisms and no [government] shelters and no funds to support them,” she said. “If women in prostitution are being penalised according to the penal code, then how will they speak up if they are afraid of being arrested?”
Until reforms are made, campaigners worry that refugees like RS, a 24-year-old from Homs, will continue to face the risks of exploitation.
After fleeing Syria at the end of 2014 with her husband and newborn baby, she decided to take a job offer at a restaurant earlier this year to help her family make ends meet. Instead she was enslaved by the Maameltein sex-trafficking ring for three months until the Lebanese police freed her last month.
“My life is totally destroyed,” she told the Syrian Network for Human Rights. “My husband won’t accept me back. No one will understand that this is not my fault. I was kidnapped and forced to do all this.”