Insufficient Aid, Lack of Redress Increase Vulnerability
November 27, 2013
Women who have fled death and destruction in Syria should find a safe haven, not sexual abuse, in Lebanon. Government and aid agencies need to open their eyes to the sexual harassment and exploitation of these vulnerable refugees and do everything in their power to stop it.
Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director

(Beirut) – Women refugees from Syria are being sexually harassed by employers, landlords, and even faith-based aid distributors in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch interviewed a dozen women who described being groped, harassed, and pressured to have sex.

The women Human Rights Watch interviewed said they did not report incidents to local authorities due to lack of confidence that authorities would take action and fear of reprisals by the abusers or arrest for not having a valid residency permit.

“Women who have fled death and destruction in Syria should find a safe haven, not sexual abuse, in Lebanon,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Government and aid agencies need to open their eyes to the sexual harassment and exploitation of these vulnerable refugees and do everything in their power to stop it.”

Twelve female refugees from Syria, interviewed separately in August and September 2013, told Human Rights Watch that they had experienced sexual assault, harassment, or attempted sexual exploitation, sometimes repeatedly, by employers, landlords, local faith-based aid distributors, and community members in Beirut, the Bekaa, and North and South Lebanon. Eight of the women are widowed, unmarried, or in Lebanon without their husbands. All 12 women are registered as refugees with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

Hala, 53, from Damascus, who said her husband is detained by the Syrian government, cleaned homes in a Beirut suburb to support herself and her four children. She told Human Rights Watch that she suffered sexual harassment or attempted exploitation in nine of the 10 households in which she had worked. Male employers tried to touch her breasts, coerce her into sex, or procure her 16-year-old daughter’s hand in marriage, she said: “They would say, ‘We will give you more money if you perform a sexual favor or give us your daughter.’”

Hala said she now rejects job offers and depends on a church for aid. She said she did not report the incidents to Lebanese authorities or the UN because she did not believe they would help her.

Zahra, 25, from Homs, who lives with her parents and siblings in North Lebanon, told Human Rights Watch that her employer at a clothing store grabbed her from behind, touched her breasts and pressured her to have sex. She left the job but said she was sexually harassed by two other shopkeepers for whom she worked. After the third incident, she became depressed and stopped working. Zahra’s family had relied on her income to pay their US$300 monthly rent.

Zahra said that she reported one of the incidents to a UNHCR caseworker, who offered comfort but said there was nothing more she could do. Zahra felt she could not report the incidents to local authorities because she and her relatives lack valid residency permits. “I can’t go to the police because my permit expired and I don’t have the money to renew it,” she said.

Lebanon has largely welcomed Syrian refugees, waiving the standard entrance fee for foreigners and not restricting them to refugee camps. However, limited shelter and livelihood options cause financial insecurity and expose refugees to exploitation at the hands of private landlords, employers, and informal aid distributors. Lack of proper documentation heightens their vulnerability.

For refugees from Syria who enter the country officially, Lebanon grants a free six-month residency permit with a possible six-month extension. After one year, a refugee, like other foreigners in Lebanon, must pay US$200 per year for a permit – an impossible sum for many refugees. Without a residency permit, refugees are subject to arrest.

As of November 20, over 824,000 refugees from Syria were registered or awaiting registration in Lebanon, according to UNHCR. UNHCR estimates that refugees from Syria will soon constitute one quarter of Lebanon’s population. Lebanese citizens, already faced with a fragile labor market, are bearing the brunt of increased unemployment and strain on resources, as illustrated in a recent World Bank assessment.

Most refugees live in rented accommodation, while some live in informal tent settlements or rent or squat in abandoned or unfinished buildings. Women, particularly those whose households depend on them for support, may withstand employment or shelter situations despite sexual exploitation and harassment.

As Lebanon struggles to cope with the massive influx of refugees from Syria, donor governments should substantially increase their funding of housing, food, health care, and basic needs for refugees to minimize vulnerability to exploitation, Human Rights Watch said.

The government of Lebanon and the United Nations should improve mechanisms for submitting sexual abuse complaints and ensure that refugees are not punished for filing complaints, Human Rights Watch said. Refugee women are not the only women in Lebanon who suffer from the inadequate systems to report sexual harassment and abuse, but they are among the most vulnerable and are often especially reticent to report abuse due to their limited resources and insecure legal status.

Thus far, UNHCR’s protection unit has used mediation and ad hoc measures, such as emergency cash-for-rent assistance, to address sexual harassment or exploitation. A UNHCR protection officer told Human Rights Watch that the agency plans to partner with a local nongovernmental organization to provide legal assistance to refugees who have experienced gender-based violence in Lebanon, but could not provide an anticipated starting date.

The protection coordinator said that in August UNHCR supported the Social Affairs Ministry, which responds to sexual harassment, assault, and exploitation cases reported at state-run social development centers, in selecting point persons for these cases for the northern part of the country, Beirut, Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa, and the south. The responsibilities of the point persons include monitoring and reporting on sexual- and gender-based abuses.

A ministry official said that, since focal points were established, the ministry has handled one case of sexual exploitation and harassment of multiple refugee women by an employee of a local faith-based aid organization. The ministry referred this case to the region’s mufti, the Sunni religious authority. The aid worker was fired, but the case was not referred to police or legal assistance providers and there was no investigation.

While the establishment of point persons is helpful, the ministry should ensure that these staff are properly trained about how to refer cases, including to legal assistance, and how to help refugees lodge formal complaints with authorities. UNHCR and the Social Affairs Ministry should ensure that the government point persons and UN caseworkers coordinate in responding to cases involving refugees.

The Social Affairs Ministry should establish and put into operation procedures for responding to cases involving refugees, Human Rights Watch said. This should include, with the victim’s consent, referrals to health, psychosocial, and legal services in line with the guidelines from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee on gender-based violence in humanitarian settings, which are accepted as the international standard by UN, government, and aid agencies.

Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but the government should include refugee status in national law, and eliminate the residency permit renewal fee for all refugees, Human Rights Watch said. Lebanese authorities should exercise prosecutorial discretion by not detaining or arresting improperly documented refugees when they report crimes.

The Lebanese government, through these ministries, and UNHCR should clearly inform refugees who have been subject to sexual harassment and exploitation of their right to file a complaint, how to make the complaint, and how the resulting judicial process works. These agencies should make sure that claims are investigated and the abusers held accountable. The Social Affairs and Interior ministries should establish referral pathways between government social service providers and the police. The authorities should consider providing women who cooperate in the prosecution of those accused of sexual and gender-based violence with immunity from prosecution for immigration law violations.

In collaboration with UNHCR and international aid agencies, Lebanon should improve protection mechanisms by establishing and requiring adherence to regulations for private providers of shelter, employment, humanitarian assistance, and other services for refugees. To reduce exploitative practices, it should develop and enforce standards of operation for informal refugee shelters.

Fulfillment of all pledged funds and increased aid from donor governments are also urgently needed, Human Rights Watch said. According to UNHCR, the US$1.2 billion appeal for refugees in Lebanon was only 51 percent funded as of October 31. On November 1, UNHCR began eliminating basic assistance for 30 percent of the refugees from Syria in Lebanon due to the funding shortfall.

Governments of countries such as Brazil, China, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, whose contributions to the UN appeal for refugee assistance have been minimal, should increase funding to support refugees’ basic needs.

“The international community should deliver the resources needed to prevent refugee women from having to choose between sexual abuse and providing for their families,” Gerntholtz said. “The Lebanese government and humanitarian agencies need to put systems in place that protect and assist refugee women who report abuse.”