BEIRUT— Three-quarters of the Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon, because of the continuing fighting in their home country, are women and children. They make up a highly vulnerable population that’s easy prey as economic distress is forcing more and more Syrian women and girls to consider prostitution.
They are turning to prostitution in order to secure money and food for their families, say aid workers, who argue the women have little choice but to resort to what they describe as "survival sex".
Rima ZaaZaa of the Lebanese charity Solidarity and Development said, with no end in sight to the Syrian refugee influx, extreme poverty will force more to trade their bodies for money and food.
“There are certain shelters that are known that the prostitution percentage is very high in these shelters, whether in Ain Helweh camp or in Sadaya, in different areas they are known. A lot of prostitution is taking place,” explained Rima ZaaZaa.
More than 600,000 Syrians have registered with the United Nations in Lebanon as refugees but the Lebanese government estimates there are more than a million already in the country. By year’s end there could be two million, placing impossible strains on the resources of a small country mired in economic problems and on the international aid community.
Unlike the governments of Jordan and Turkey, the Lebanese government has refused to build new refugee camps to house Syrian refugees. With Syrian women and girls scattered throughout Lebanon in shabby rental accommodations, makeshift shelters, and abandoned buildings, aids groups say they often face sexual harassment and demands for sex from landlords, store owners, and Lebanese officials.
Afana, a 26-year-old mother of two young children, said it is not uncommon even for male aid workers to demand sex. She explained through a translator what happened to her at one charity. “In one of the NGOs he told me if you accept to sleep with me, if we can have sexual relation, every time I have any kind of access to assistance it will be yours. I will have your name on it. So I started crying and went out of the NGO,” she recalled.
Lebanese officials describe reports of increased prostitution and the trading of sex for assistance as exaggerated, claiming they are isolated cases. They say few women are being trafficked, pointing to figures from the Internal Security Forces showing there were 27 trafficked women in 2011 with exactly the same number reported last year.
But this is missing the point, aid workers said. They agree organized criminal trafficking isn’t large scale in Lebanon. What has become endemic is women and girls are being forced by their circumstances to resort to street-walking and survival sex and the aid workers say many men are happy to exploit their plight seeing them as fair game, they added.
Qass Em-Saad of the Lebanese branch of the aid organization Developmental Action Without Borders says Syrian women and girls are so desperate they are selling themselves for as little as 10,000 Lebanese pounds - about $7 - outside Ain Helweh, the Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon where more than 20,000 Palestinian Syrians have sought refuge.
“Here we have a lot of cases but also because of the taboo and because of the Islamist factions that we have inside the camp the people they are afraid to talk about these things but if you go outside the camp you will see those Palestinians and Syrian girls or women who suffer from poverty, they are going outside the camp and they practice these sexual activities,” said Saad.
Saad’s group is trying to train the Lebanese police to see these women as victims rather than as offenders.