Shortfalls in international assistance and discriminatory policies in Lebanon are creating conditions that facilitate the exploitation and abuse of women refugees.

Syrian refugees add to Beirut's dense mix of cultures © Spencer Platt / Getty ImagesSyrian refugees add to Beirut's dense mix of cultures © Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Financial assistance

A new report by Amnesty International, ‘I want a safe place’: Refugee women from Syria uprooted and unprotected in Lebanon, highlights how a shortage of international funding and the Lebanese government’s refusal to renew residency permits for refugees has left refugee women in a precarious position.

The report, published ahead of this week’s Syria Donors Conference, calls on the international community, including Australia, to boost financial assistance.

"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,” said Kathryn Ramsay, Gender Researcher at Amnesty International.

"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."

Sexual harassment

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.

Around 70 per cent of Syrian refugee families are living significantly below the Lebanese poverty line.

My daughter worked in a store. The manager harassed her and touched her. That is why I don’t let my daughters work now.

Asmaa*, a Palestinian refugee from Syria

A severe shortage of funds forced the World Food Programme to reduce the monthly food allowance provided to the most vulnerable refugees from US$30 to US$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 refugee women Amnesty International spoke to had stopped receiving payments for food over the last year. Many said they struggle to meet the high cost of living in Lebanon 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.

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."

"Whether they are underpaid at work or living in dirty, rat-infested, leaking homes, the lack of financial stability causes immense difficulties for women refugees and encourages people in positions of power to take advantage of them," said Kathryn Ramsay.

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.

Kathryn Ramsay, Gender Researcher at Amnesty International

Difficult life for refugee women

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.

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.

"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 Kathryn Ramsay.

"The influx of refugees has placed a considerable strain on Lebanon, but this is no excuse for the stringent restrictions the authorities have imposed on refugees which are putting them in danger."

"The world’s wealthiest countries need to do much more to alleviate this crisis," said Kathryn Ramsay.

"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."

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What needs to happen?

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.

Amnesty International's petition calls on the Australian Government to ensure that people fleeing Syria are treated fairly and that assistance is increased to refugee hosting countries.

*Name changed to protect her identity