A woman walks in a poor neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon.

Why don’t Syrian women feel safe in Lebanon?

Our new report ‘I want a safe place: Refugee women from Syria uprooted and unprotected in Lebanon’ reveals that Syrian refugee women don’t feel safe in Lebanon. Here are four reasons why, and four possible solutions.

1. Refugee women are often threatened and sexually harassed in public

Amnesty recently interviewed 65 Syrian refugee women in Lebanon. Some told us that men offer them money or help in exchange for sex, knowing that most refugees live in deep poverty. Others said they had been threatened, including with weapons.

Almost all the women we spoke to said they are constantly sexually harassed in public by neighbours, bus and taxi drivers, strangers in the street and sometimes even police officers and government employees.

“I feel threatened financially, psychologically and emotionally. My life pattern has changed. The way I do my hair has changed and I have to dress differently. Everyone approaches me to go with them in exchange for money. [Once] I was almost kidnapped. [Another time] someone said that they would give me money for rent in return for marriage. I say to them: ‘Who gives you the right to speak to me like this?” Reem, 28, Beirut

Four woman sitting in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
© Giles Clarke/Getty Images Reportage. Four woman sitting in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

2. Many refugee women are supporting their families alone

Lebanon now hosts more refugees per capita than any other country in the world. Most have fled the violent civil war in neighbouring Syria. They live in tents, abandoned buildings, or rented accommodation because no new refugee camps have been set up.

One in five Syrian refugee households has a woman in charge. Some are widows, others divorced, or have husbands who have chosen to stay in Syria. Many simply don’t know where their husbands are: disappearances remain a terrifying fact of life in Syria, with 58,148 people vanishing at the hands of the government between March 2011 and August 2015. Around 90% were men.

“I came to Lebanon in 2013 alone with my children. My husband disappeared in Syria. I live in a tent with 10 people – we are three widows with our children. Every month I have to pay rent for my tent. The landlord won’t wait [for payment] so sometimes I have to beg. I just want to go back to Syria.” Rajaa, 50, eastern Lebanon.

3. Without residence permits, refugee women are easy targets

Today, one in four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. In January 2015, Lebanon’s government made it more complicated and expensive for refugees to renew their residence permits. Without these legal documents, refugees are considered to be breaking Lebanese law.

Many refugee women told us not having a valid residence permit was a key reason for not reporting harassment to the Lebanese authorities. Refugees who can’t afford the US$200 to renew their permits live in constant fear of being arrested and detained or deported back to Syria. This makes them easy to take advantage of.

“[Without a valid permit] I am afraid to go out, and I’m afraid to cross checkpoints. I have to go to Beirut for hospital appointments for my daughter every 15 days. She has a rare medical condition. A Lebanese man told me he would help me [get] official documents, but in exchange he wanted to spend the night with me. I felt really disturbed and upset because the general view of Syrians is that we are cheap.” Aisha, 33, eastern Lebanon.

Syrian boy sits on a roadside in Lebanon.
© Giles Clarke/Getty Images Reportage. Syrian boy sits on a roadside in Lebanon.

4. Without humanitarian aid, poverty is getting worse

Governments around the world have promised financial support to overwhelmed host countries like Lebanon, but it’s not enough. In 2015, the UN received just 57 per cent of the funds needed to support refugees in Lebanon. Many of the women we met either had their monthly UN food support payment stopped, or substantially reduced to just US$21.60 per person. That works out as US$0.72 a day – well below the UN’s global poverty line of US$1.90. Women say that that employers, who know refugees without residence permits are unlikely to report them, deliberately pay very low wages – or not pay at all. They also live in fear of landlords suddenly increasing their rent or kicking entire families out with no notice.

“Landlords will kick you out of the house if you are one or two days late with the rent. I work and receive some aid, but it’s not enough. My 16-year-old daughter is very tall and looks older. Men come to me proposing to marry her, but I don’t want that. I want her to finish her education even though she hasn’t had the chance here.” Hanan, 38, Beirut.

Four solutions that would help refugee women right now

Refugee women and girls in Lebanon are staying strong in the face of intense pressure but they need protection and support right now.

To help improve the lives of refugee women and girls in Lebanon and Syria, the Australian Government must:

  • Increase assistance to countries hosting refugees and accelerate the resettlement of Syrians in Australia
  • Support humanitarian assistance and help human rights monitors reach vulnerable people on the ground
  • Make sure the Syrian Government and opposition groups stop all attacks on the Syrian people and act within international law
    Take all possible steps to avoid harming Syrian people during military operations.