Uprooted and unprotected: Syrian refugee women exploited in Lebanon
"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.
Head of the households
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.
|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," Ramsay explained.
"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."
Poverty and exploitation
Around 70 percent of Syrian refugee families are living significantly below the Lebanese poverty line and the United Nations humanitarian response to the Syria refugee crisis has consistently been underfunded.
Last year the UN only received 57 percent of the funds it requested for its work in Lebanon.
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."
|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.
Lack of legal status increases risks
Difficult 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 Ramsay.
Another Syrian woman told Amnesty International 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.
"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," Ramsay urged.
|Instead of contributing to the climate of fear and intimidation the Lebanese authorities must urgently amend their policies to ensure women refugees are protected|
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.
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.
"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," said Ramsay.
"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," the Amnesty researcher added.
"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."