Syrian refugee women and Palestinian refugee women from Syria face risks of serious human rights violations and abuses in Lebanon, including gender-based violence and exploitation. Those who are heads of their households are at particular risk.
Over four million people have fled Syria since the start of the crisis in 2011 with more than 1 million fleeing to Lebanon. This means that about 25% of the country’s population are refugees from Syria and Lebanon has more refugees per capita than any other country in the world. Of the 1.06 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon at the end of 2015, 53% are children. Women over 18 years of age make up almost 26% of the refugee population and 21% are men over 18. Lebanon also hosts over 44,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria.
One fifth of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon are headed by women. For Palestinian refugees from Syria, women head almost one third of households. Some refugee women who are heads of their household in Lebanon are widows, some are divorced and some have husbands who have either stayed in Syria or have sought asylum in other countries. Others have husbands who are missing, forcibly disappeared or detained in Syria.
Amnesty International carried out research in Lebanon from 15 to 26 June 2015 and from 30 September to 16 October 2015. The organization met with 77 refugee women (65 Syrian women and 12 Palestinian refugee women from Syria). The organization also held meetings with UN agencies, lawyers and international and national NGOs and wrote to the government requesting its response to some of the findings. Amnesty International has changed all names of refugee women to protect their identity.
At the start of the crisis in Syria, Lebanon, to its credit, largely operated an “open border” policy, allowing refugees to enter the country. This has now changed. In January 2015 the government introduced onerous new criteria for refugees to renew their residence permits. The UN reported that 61% of Syrian refugee households had invalid residence permits in July 2015 and 86% of Palestinians refugees from Syria had invalid permits in March 2015.
Without a valid residency permit, refugees from Syria are considered to be in breach of Lebanese law. This exposes them to the risk of a range of human rights violations, including arbitrary arrest, detention and deportation, inability to seek redress from the authorities if they are a victim of crime due to fear of arrest, limitations on movement, inability to register births and marriages and difficulties in accessing services such as education or health because of fear of crossing checkpoints. Such fear of checkpoints was common among refugee women interviewed by Amnesty International. A Syrian woman, “Mouna”, who lives in the Bekaa Valley, said: “Having a valid permit would give us higher morale and we would feel more psychologically comfortable in moving around. We would feel like any other residents of the country. I wouldn’t be afraid of checkpoints.”
Refugee women struggle to meet the high cost of living in Lebanon and, in particular, to find sufficient money to buy food and to pay rent for their accommodation. The UN-led humanitarian response is grossly underfunded. In response to the shortage of funds, the UN has cut the numbers of refugees receiving its support and the amount of assistance provided to refugees. It estimated in September 2015 that 70% of Syrian refugee families were living below the Lebanese national poverty line of US$3.84 per person per day. About one quarter of refugee women interviewed by Amnesty International had had their monthly financial support for food from the UN stopped in the past year. Those still receiving the payment had seen the amount reduce substantially. This caused them increased financial difficulties.
Refugee women who were working or who had tried to find a job reported underpayment or non-payment of wages. “Hanan”, a Palestinian refugee from Syria, said: “There is exploitation by employers. They know we will agree to whatever low wage they offer because we are in need. They will offer a job for a very low wage and you wouldn’t agree if you weren’t in need.” Another Palestinian woman, “Asmaa”, described how her daughter experienced sexual harassment by her employer: “My daughter worked in a store. The manager harassed her and touched her. That is why I don’t let my daughters work now”.
The government does not permit new refugee camps to be built on its territory so refugees live across the country, mainly in rented property or in informal settlements. Housing is in short supply and often overcrowded and of poor quality. Refugee women worry about being unable to pay the rent and possible eviction. “Iman”, a Syrian woman, said, “I have to save every penny I have and deprive the children of clothes, food and other things in order to save money to pay the rent for the house. The moment you don’t have the rent, the owner of the house will evict you.”
Amnesty International heard repeatedly from refugee women about sexual harassment they experience in public spaces. Refugee women living in different parts of Lebanon spoke about instances of Lebanese men making inappropriate sexual advances towards them while they were going about their daily lives. In some cases, men offered financial or other assistance to refugee women in exchange for sex. In other cases men threatened them, including with weapons. Women reported sexual harassment by police officers, government office employees in charge of renewing residence permits, employers, neighbours, bus and taxi drivers and strangers in the street.
Refugee women heads of household told Amnesty International about targeted harassment they had experienced from men who knew they did not have a husband or other adult male relative living with them in Lebanon. “Fatima”, whose husband has been missing since 2012, said that when she tried to register her children in school a man had offered to help her with the paperwork. However, he then phoned her several times a day asking her to go out with him. Since then she has been approached regularly by men in her neighbourhood who know her husband is missing. She described a typical approach: “He will say, ‘If you need a ride to any place, I’ll take you.’ I assume in the coming days that he will ask me for more… When I [tell them] that I am still searching for my husband and that my children are waiting for their father, they tell me to quit searching and say that my husband is probably dead.”
Refugee women consistently cited their lack of valid residence permits as a key reason why they were unable or unwilling to report harassment and threats to the Lebanese authorities. One woman, “Hala”, said, “Of course I wouldn't feel safe [to go to the police] because I don’t have a valid [residence] permit and they would ask for a valid permit whenever I walked into any police station.”