Syrian refugee women in Lebanon are at risk of being exploited by people in positions of authority, in part because of the government’s refusal to renew residency permits for Syrian refugees and a severe lack of international aid money, according to Kathryn Ramsay, a gender researcher with Amnesty International and author of a new report on the topic.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) halted all registration of incoming Syrian refugees in Lebanon in 2015 due to governmental pressure, and introduced new regulations that have made it increasingly difficult for refugees to renew their residency status in the country.
Without legal residency, refugees face arbitrary arrest, detention and potential deportation – consequences that leave many afraid to report cases of abuse to Lebanese authorities.
“The majority of refugees from Syria in Lebanon are struggling to survive in often desperate conditions,” said Ramsay. “They face widespread discrimination and major obstacles in obtaining food, housing or a job.”
Nearly 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live well below the Lebanese poverty line.
“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,” Ramsay said.
The international humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria has been consistently underfunded. Last year, for example, the U.N. only brought in 57 percent of the funds it requested for its aid work in Lebanon.
But regardless of the tough circumstances, Ramsay said, Syrian women refugees in Lebanon are resilient. “One thing that struck me from speaking to these women, and from looking at how the refugee crisis is being covered in genera,l is the fact that a lot of the coverage is really victimizing,” she said. “What I got from these women is that, yes, they’re in terrible situations, they’re really struggling, but they are so determined to do the best that they can for their families.”
“I don’t think the resilience and the fact that they’re pretty amazing in how they keep going and doing whatever they can, they’re working when maybe they didn’t work before when they were in Syria, but they’re taking on responsibilities for their household.”
Syria Deeply spoke with Ramsay about the precarious situation of Syrian women refugees in Lebanon and the consequences of an underfunded aid system.
Syria Deeply: What factors make refugee women in Lebanon particularly at risk of harassment and exploitation?
Kathryn Ramsay: Syrian refugee women and Palestinian refugee women from Syria are facing a number of challenges in Lebanon and the combination of all of those challenges puts them at greater risk of violence and exploitation. The economic situation that they’re living in combined with the lack of security of residence means that there are a number of situations in which they have very limited power and there are people like employers and landlords who have a great deal of power over them and that puts them at risk.
Syria Deeply: Who is largely responsible for the exploitation of refugee women in Lebanon?
Kathryn Ramsay: The women we spoke to talked particularly about harassment in public spaces, sometimes from strangers on the street, sometimes from people within the community, who knew that they were from Syria and who knew that they were all alone or didn’t have their husband with them. There are also instances where they suspect people who are offering them assistance of having ulterior motives. They’ve talked about men offering to help them but then realizing that these men are asking for something in return that’s sexual. Employers are offering low wages because they know that refugee women are in need – that’s something that is happening I think to all refugees – but for the women we spoke to they were also concerned about sexual harassment.
Syria Deeply: What makes Lebanon a unique case in the refugee crisis is the acute lack of residency among refugees. Does Amnesty have any idea what percentage of Lebanon’s more than 1 million Syrian refugees are illegal at the moment?
Kathryn Ramsay: The figures are quite difficult to work out. In the report we used U.N. figures because we have to go by published data and we haven’t been able to do a large enough survey to estimate that from the people we spoke to. We’ve gone with the UNHCR estimates and figures cited by UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] and even that data is from the middle of last year, so with people’s permits expiring and them being unable to renew the percentages are likely to be quite a bit higher now.
Syria Deeply: Was this a prevalent issue in your interviews? The worry over a lack of residency and the connection between lack of residency and exploitation?
Kathryn Ramsay: Yes. The lack of residency came up in all of the interviews we did. It was something that people were concerned about. It affected a lot of things in their everyday lives – they were worried about going out, worried about having to cross checkpoints and show their documents, worried about potentially getting arrested or detained and sent back to Syria, and for women they are unwilling to seek help from the authorities in case they do experience harassment or violence. A couple of the women we spoke to had approached the authorities and they had been told that they couldn’t register a complaint because of their residency status or that the police were looking more at their documents and whether they had a residence permit rather than helping them with the thing that they had come to report.
Syria Deeply: Are there any measures being put in place to prevent this kind of abuse or exploitation? How prevalent is this type of abuse throughout Lebanon’s refugee population?
Kathryn Ramsay: It’s probably very prevalent but nobody has done any large-scale quantitative studies on refugee women’s experience of violence and harassment. It came up in a lot of the interviews that we did. The vast majority of the women we spoke to said they didn’t feel safe in Lebanon but we were only able to speak to 77 women. So we can’t stay that it’s happening to all women everywhere because that’s not a large enough sample and we weren’t able to make sure that the sample was representative of all refugees. But what we found suggests that there is quite a serious problem that needs further investigation and certainly needs measures taken to address it. The government has an obligation to protect all women and girls from gender-based violence – whether they’re Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, anyone within the country.
Syria Deeply: Is the government, because of the lack of residency, overlooking its duties to protect this particular segment of the population?
Kathryn Ramsay: Yes. The women we interviewed told us that either they wouldn’t even approach the police at all because they were worried, so they weren’t seeking any protection or any redress, and then those couple of women who had approached the authorities said that they didn’t get any response for it, they weren’t assisted in any way. We wrote to the government requesting a response to some of the information that we had received and asked what there were doing about it, but we didn’t get a reply in time for the report. We haven’t had a reply yet, but we hope to be able to speak directly to them about the findings in the report at a later date.
Syria Deeply: Your report calls for an increase in financial assistance to Lebanon. It is the country with the most refugees per capita in the world, but is more funding the solution to these kind of harassment issues?
Kathryn Ramsay: It’s not the whole solution but it’s part of the solution because the levels of poverty are so high – the women we spoke to felt that people were taking advantage of their situation and the fact that they were in economic need. So ensuring that refugees have an adequate standard of living and that their rights to healthcare, education and adequate shelter are secure would help. But without also addressing the underlying protection issues in terms of residence permits, being able to approach the police, effective investigations, harassment … it’s not the whole solution, but it’s part of the solution.
When we were speaking to the women they were continuously highlighting the fact that the amount that they received from UNHCR infoodvouchers had decreased or it had stopped altogether, and for some of them it was their main source of income, but they had seen it drop to$13 a month and they just couldn’t live on that. UNHCR has now been able to increase the amount to $21 a month but that’s still only the equivalent of 72 cents a day. So you’re right in saying that pouring money into something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be used in the right way or be effective. The U.N. does need sufficient funding to be able to reinstate their vouchers at a level that is actually going to provide adequate nutrition to everyone.
Syria Deeply: Can you suggest something that would surprise readers regarding the Syrian refugee community in Lebanon or its treatment there? What’s one thing that’s not being talked about?
Kathryn Ramsay: One thing that struck me from speaking to these women and from looking at how the refugee crisis is being covered in general is the fact that a lot of the coverage is really victimizing. What I got from these women is that, yes, they’re in terrible situations, they’re really struggling, but they are so determined to do the best that they can for their families. I don’t think the resilience and the fact that they’re pretty amazing in how they keep going and doing whatever they can, they’re working when maybe they didn’t work before when they were in Syria, but they’re taking on responsibilities for their household. I don’t know that that comes across too much. I think it’s very easy to portray refugee women as victims all the time.
Top image: Rasha Abdoullah, 24, who fled with her family from Raqqa in Syria, sits in her tent as she holds her two-month-old daughter Sham at a Syrian refugee camp in the village of Riyak in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)