Little solace for human trafficking victims in Lebanon
Beirut - Lebanon was struck by the biggest human trafficking scandal in recent memory in March, when 75 Syrian women, who had been enslaved, beaten and forced into prostitution, escaped the red-light district of Maameltein, north of Beirut.
The harrowing tale is not new. Thousands of women are trafficked every year into Lebanon to become sex slaves. The prevalence of organised crime owes much to the government’s laxity and legal loopholes in the country, activists say.
Several Lebanese non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working with trafficking victims said some of the women returned to their homes in Syria, sparking fears that they might suffer additional abuse at the hands of their families.
“For those going back to their families, things will not be easy. Some of them face the prospect that men relatives will view them as a shame to the family and want to kill them,” said Wissam Tarif, a Lebanese human rights activist. “For others, they were breadwinners so they will be looked at as failures, a shame in their own society.”
While those who chose to stay in Lebanon may be better protected, they, too, face numerous hurdles in their pursuit for justice.
“The Lebanese system has created a culture that permits human trafficking and sex slavery,” said Ghada Jabbour, a social worker with Lebanese NGO KAFA. “There are many legal loopholes that have let this happen.”
According to Lebanon’s 2011 anti-trafficking law, a woman must prove that she was forced into prostitution. However, many women, including the 75 Syrians, are lured into Lebanon under false pretences of a steady job or even a possible marriage opportunity and consent to move to the country to work.
“Sex traffickers set up agencies in different countries as a front and go after vulnerable women,” said Ramy Shukr of the Migrant Community Centre in Beirut. “The women are given [a false] work contract and visa and are lured in by job prospects. Once in Lebanon, they are sponsored, told they must pay back the money spent on their work papers and often have their travel documents seized.”
Many women trafficked into Lebanon enter the country under what is called an “artist visa”, which has become synonymous with forced prostitution.
“These women are not smuggled across the border as people may think; they come in with official papers. And officials at the border know why they are here,” said Maya al-Ammar, a representative of KAFA. “Every year, 4,000 to 6,000 people are trafficked through Lebanon on this so-called artist visa.”
Having consented on paper to work for an establishment that has sponsored them and got them legal visas, proving that they were forced into prostitution is a difficult task.
“How can a woman prove she was forced into it?” asked Jabbour. “It’s her word against the agency that brought her here, not to mention the fact that security forces turn a blind eye to the problem.”
Prostitution is a crime under Lebanon’s penal code. Those who manage to escape are often viewed as criminals and can be jailed or returned to their captors. Also, bringing the captors to justice can take years due to bureaucratic Lebanese justice system, Mohana Ishak, a lawyer helping the 75 Syrian women, explained.
The general prosecutor must determine if the women were forced into prostitution. The file is taken to an investigative judge, a counsel of judges and finally the criminal court. “The whole process can literally take years,” Ishak said.
Lebanese security forces have been all too flexible in human trafficking, experts said. Chez Maurice, a hotel in Maameltein where the women were held, had been investigated in October but there was no raid.
Many heads of such trafficking rings are at large, including the owner of Chez Maurice. “Police are often not going after the recruiters, they tend to only get the lower guys in the operation,” said Tarif.
However, the head of the Syrian women trafficking ring has surrendered to authorities.
Ishak noted that the case has been moving much faster thanks to the public outcry triggered by the scandal, pointing out that “so far, it’s only been a matter of weeks, and we’ve gotten to the third stage of the judicial” proceedings”.
Meanwhile, several NGOs have been involved in the rehabilitation of sex slaves who chose to remain in Lebanon.
“We take it on a case-by-case basis, there isn’t just one perfect method,” said Jihane Isseid, a worker with local NGO ABAAD. “We shelter them and offer a full programme of help, ranging from legal to psychological. We also offer art healing sessions, culinary lessons and vocational training. The aim is to get them back on their feet and empower them.”
Although the fate of the 75 Syrian women has become a major case in Lebanon, it could be a long time until more women in the same situation get the justice they deserve.
“It will take years and a lot of political will and proactive stances from the government to actually change things,” noted Ishak.