Syrian Women at Risk of Sex Trafficking in Lebanon: Rights Group
July 29, Beirut: Weaknesses and a lack of coordination in the Lebanese government’s response to sex trafficking is putting women and girls at risk, Human Rights Watch said , on the World Day against Trafficking in Persons. The government should enforce its anti-trafficking law more effectively, remove obstacles to reporting trafficking, improve police coordination, and provide support to trafficking survivors.
Syrian women appear to be at particular risk of trafficking into forced prostitution and sexual exploitation in Lebanon. A series of raids in 2015 and 2016 found dozens of Syrian women being held against their will and exploited. In March, in one recent case, security officers freed as many as 75 Syrian women from two brothels, Chez Maurice and Silver-B. Authorities arrested and indicted over a dozen people on sex trafficking charges in that case.
Authorities have taken some important steps to end trafficking. The United States government lifted its ranking of Lebanon from “tier 3” to “tier 2” in its 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report. These annual rankings reflect the US government’s assessment of the records of countries around the world in responding to trafficking. The 2016 report said that Lebanon had made “significant efforts” to meet minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, including increasing numbers of prosecutions. In 2015, the report said, Lebanon convicted 30 people for trafficking crimes. However, the report noted that, “the law was applied unevenly, as most judges lacked understanding of the crime and knowledge of best practices to handle trafficking cases appropriately.” It also said that “some judges gave convicted traffickers weak sentences.”
Authorities were aware that trafficking had occurred previously at Chez Maurice. In late 2011, the Internal Security Forces, Lebanon’s police, raided the premises and, news reports said, found a 17-year-old Syrian girl trapped there. Engaging children in prostitution is a crime and constitutes trafficking under Lebanon’s 2011 anti-trafficking law. Chez Maurice closed for approximately three months and then reopened. In March, the General Security, the agency that oversees the entry and exit of foreigners into the country, raided it again. The two former captives said that four of the women freed in the raid told officers that they had been trafficked and forced into prostitution.
HRW is concerned that survivors of trafficking are not getting the services and support they need in Lebanon. In the Chez Maurice case, some of the survivors had to wait two or three days in police stations or an apartment before they were given spots in shelters run by nongovernmental agencies. A police officer and staff of a nongovernmental agency described their scramble to find shelter spots. Staff from an international organization that provided health services to the women said there was a substantial delay before the women received care. This suggests problems with coordination and capacity to help survivors. Security officials also released many of the women rescued from Chez Maurice and Silver-B without questioning them or offering protection or access to shelters. Some of the victims were picked up again by their captors before being freed for a second time by police officers.
The country’s 2011 anti-trafficking law directs the Social Affairs Ministry to establish a trust fund for victims of trafficking with assets seized from traffickers. The ministry has not yet established the fund, and ministry staff told that the Chez Maurice case had demonstrated weaknesses in their referral chain, which they said they planned to strengthen.
Many obstacles deter victims of trafficking from reporting crimes. Staff of organizations working with trafficking victims told that the criminalization of sex work in Lebanon is a significant obstacle. They said that authorities tend to perceive all women in “prostitution” – even if they are trafficked into forced prostitution – as criminals. This means that those forced into prostitution fear being arrested if they approach the authorities.
HRW opposes the criminalization of consensual adult sex work. HRW believes that criminalization of sex work also creates barriers for those engaged in sex work to exercise basic rights, such as protection from violence, access to justice for abuses, and access to essential health services. Coercing a person to provide sexual services (whether this amounts to sexual assault, trafficking, forced prostitution, or other forms of exploitation) should be criminalized and prosecuted.
In addition, many Syrian women in Lebanon have no legal residency status in the country, which increases risks of sexual and other exploitation and also leaves them afraid to file criminal complaints against abusers.
The Oslo Times International News Network