Lebanon: Refugee women from Syria face heightened risk of exploitation and sexual harassment
Shortfalls in international assistance and discriminatory policies imposed by the Lebanese authorities are creating conditions that facilitate the exploitation and abuse of women refugees in Lebanon, said Amnesty International in a new report published ahead of the Syria Donors Conference in London on 4 February.
The report, ‘I want a safe place’: Refugee women from Syria uprooted and unprotected in Lebanon, highlights how the Lebanese government’s refusal to renew residency permits for refugees and a shortage of international funding, leaves refugee women in a precarious position, and puts them at risk of exploitation by people in positions of power including landlords, employers and even the police.
“The combination of a significant shortage in international funding for the refugee crisis and strict restrictions imposed on refugees by the Lebanese authorities, is fuelling a climate in which refugee women from Syria are at risk of harassment and exploitation and are unable to seek protection from the authorities,” said Kathryn Ramsay, Gender Researcher at Amnesty International.
In 2015, Lebanon stopped the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) from registering any more Syrian refugees and introduced new regulations making it difficult for refugees to renew their residency status. Without proper legal status they face arbitrary arrest, detention and even deportation leaving many afraid to report abuse to police.
Twenty percent of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon are headed by women. In some cases women became the main income providers supporting the family after their husbands were killed, detained, forcibly disappeared or abducted in Syria.
“The majority of refugees from Syria in Lebanon – are struggling to survive in often desperate conditions. They face widespread discrimination and major obstacles in obtaining food, housing or a job. For women refugees surviving in such circumstances can often be even more difficult, with many – particularly women who are the heads of their households – at increased risk of harassment, exploitation and abuse at work and in the streets,” said Kathryn Ramsay.
Poverty, exploitation by employers and landlords
Around 70% of Syrian refugee families are living significantly below the Lebanese poverty line. The UN humanitarian response to the Syria refugee crisis has consistently been underfunded. Last year the UN only received 57% of the funds it requested for its work in Lebanon. The severe shortage of funds forced the World Food Programme to reduce the monthly food allowance provided to the most vulnerable refugees from US$30 to US$13.50 in mid-2015. After an injection of funding in late 2015, it was increased to $21.60- just $0.72 a day. A quarter of the women Amnesty International spoke to had stopped receiving payments for food over the last year.
Many refugee women said they struggle to meet the high cost of living in Lebanon and to afford food or rent which has exposed them to greater risk of exploitation. Some said that they received inappropriate sexual advances from men or offers of financial or other assistance in exchange for sex.
In a climate of widespread discrimination against refugees in Lebanon, refugee women who managed to find jobs to support themselves reported being exploited by employers who paid excessively low wages. “They know we will agree to whatever low wage they offer because we are in need,” said “Hanan” a Palestinian refugee from Syria whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
“Asmaa”, a 56-year-old Palestinian refugee from Syria living in Shatila, a refugee camp in Beirut southern suburbs said she did not permit her daughters to work for fear they would face harassment: “My daughter worked in a store. The manager harassed her and touched her. That is why I don’t let my daughters work now.”
Several women also said they had left a job or not taken a job because they felt the employers’ behaviour had been inappropriate.
Finding enough money to pay for accommodation is another significant challenge. At least 58% or Syrian refugees live in rented apartments or houses, others live in dilapidated buildings and informal settlements. Yet many women said they were unable to afford the exorbitant rents and found themselves in squalid accommodation.
“Whether they are underpaid at work or living in dirty, rat-infested, leaking homes, the lack of financial stability causes immense difficulties for women refugees and encourages people in positions of power to take advantage of them,” said Kathryn Ramsay.
Lack of legal status increases risks
Burdensome bureaucratic procedures and high costs for refugees to renew their residence permits, introduced by the Lebanese government in January 2015, have prevented many refugees from being able to renew their residency permits. Without a valid residence permit, refugees from Syria often fear arrest and fail to report abuse to the police.
The majority of refugee women who spoke to Amnesty International said the lack of a residence permit stopped them from reporting a crime to the Lebanese authorities. “Hanan”, a Palestinian refugee from Syria who lives in a refugee camp near Beirut with her three daughters, said she went to the police to complain when a bus driver harassed her and was turned away. They told her she was not eligible to present a complaint because she lacked “legal status”.
“It was very clear to the women we spoke to that the harassment and exploitation they face is made even worse by the fact they have nowhere to turn to for help and protection because they lack valid residence permits,” said Kathryn Ramsay.
Another Syrian woman told Amnesty International said she became a target for harassment after going to the police: “After a while the police would pass by our house or would call us and ask us to go out with them. It was the same three police officers who took our report. Because we don’t have legal [residence] permits, the officers threatened us. They said that they would imprison us, if we didn’t go out with them.”
Lebanon has more refugees per capita than any other country in the world and the international community has failed to support the country, however this is no justification for not offering protection to refugees from exploitation and abuse.
“The influx of refugees has placed a considerable strain on Lebanon, but this is no excuse for the stringent restrictions the authorities have imposed on refugees which are putting them in danger,” said Kathryn Ramsay.
“Instead of contributing to the climate of fear and intimidation the Lebanese authorities must urgently amend their policies to ensure women refugees are protected, and that all refugees in Lebanon are able to easily renew their residence permits without restrictions.”
International support crucial
The lack of international funding and support for refugees in Lebanon is a direct factor contributing to the poverty and precarious circumstances of refugee women which has exposed them to greater risks.
UNHCR has identified at least 10% of the Syria refugee population in host countries, the equivalent of 450,000, as vulnerable and in urgent need of resettlement in another country outside the region. UNHCR considers women and girls at risk as among those who meet the criteria of “most vulnerable” refugees.
Amnesty International is calling on the international community to increase the number of resettlement places and other safe routes out of the region offered to refugees from Syria.
In addition they must boost financial assistance and use this week’s donor conference to pledge to fulfil the UN’s funding requirements for assistance for the Syria crisis for 2016-2017.
“The world’s wealthiest countries, from the EU including the UK, Gulf states and the USA, among others all need to do much more to alleviate this crisis. As well as boosting humanitarian support to those in Syria and refugees in the region they must also offer to share responsibility for the crisis by resettling more refugees,” said Kathryn Ramsay.
“They must also work with host countries such as Lebanon to remove barriers to legal registration for refugees and access to vital services and help ensure all refugees, including women at risk do not face abuse.”