‘I Want a Safe Place’: Refugee Women from Syria Uprooted and Unprotected in Lebanon

February 1, 2016

‘I Want a Safe Place’: Refugee Women from Syria Uprooted and Unprotected in Lebanon

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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 February 4.

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 percent 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 percent of the funds it requested for its work in Lebanon. The severe shortage of funds forced the World Food Program to reduce the monthly food allowance provided to the most vulnerable refugees from $30 to $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’ behavior had been inappropriate.

Finding enough money to pay for accommodation is another significant challenge. At least 58 percent of 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.