Child Labor, Sexual Abuse, Death: the Plight of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Human Rights Watch reports that Syrian refugees’ lack of legal status makes them prime targets of exploitation with ripple effects throughout all of Lebanese society.

(photo: ZouZou via

WASHINGTON — The life of a refugee is rarely easy. But it is particularly difficult for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, most of whom cannot obtain legal status, and are vulnerable to exploitation, says a new report by the group Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The new Lebanese residency policies adopted in 2015 “are making life impossible for refugees in Lebanon and are pushing them underground,” stated Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East director, on the country’s stricter application process for a residency permit. Lebanon, which borders Syria, has hosted well over a million refugees fleeing the five year-long civil war there.

The tension is detailed in a new report released by Human Rights Watch titled “I Just Wanted to be Treated Like a Person”: How Lebanon’s Residency Rules Facilitate Abuse of Syrian Refugees.” Some of the findings are that most Syrian refugees in the country do not have legal status, and have suffered labor and sexual abuse as a result.  

For instance, only two out of 40 refugees that Human Rights Watch interviewed between February and November of 2015 “had been able to renew their residencies with their UNHCR certificates,” the report stated.

Even though more than half of them were able to pay the fee, the government denied their residency application and told them to get a sponsor, even though they had UN refugee status.

Syrians had been able to enter Lebanon without a visa prior to 2015, and could renew their residency permits for free. That changed with the new rules which require a sponsor and a fee which most refugees are unable to pay.

Lebanon has the world’s highest refugee population per capita. There are 1.1 million Syrian refugees there who have registered with the United Nations. However, many refugees are not registered with the UN, so some estimates put refugees as high as 30% of Lebanon’s population.  

UN refugees receive aid but as a result cannot legally work in Lebanon. If they enter the workforce and the authorities find out, they could be deported.

There are various reasons that many refugees don’t register with the UN According to aid groups, some are concerned about security in the refugee camps, while others simply cannot afford the trip to register with the UN or want to avoid the security checkpoints along the way.

Regardless of the reason, those who are not registered with the UN do not receive refugee benefits.


‘I Feel Like His Slave’

These refugees must have a sponsor to get a work permit. Thus they are at the mercy of their sponsor or employer if they do not have legal status. One refugee reported a sponsor making profits of up to $1,000 for legal sponsorship.

“My boss makes me work more than 12 hours a day at his shop. Sometimes I complain but then he threatens to cancel my sponsorship. What can I do?” one refugee told Human Rights Watch. “I have to do whatever he says. I feel like his slave.”

“Some refugees purposely burned their tents down a few months ago in the town of Marj in order to get emergency cash assistance. It has got to the point where people are burning their own belongings just to survive,” one humanitarian worker said in the report.

Child labor has also increased with reports of children working for $5 a day or $15 a week, and landlords demanding they work for free if a family is late paying its rent. Some mothers have reportedly resorted to prostitution to support their families. Women have also been vulnerable to sexual exploitation by employers or sponsors.

“Five Syrian women told Human Rights Watch that sponsors or employers sexually harassed or tried to sexually exploit them, but that they could not confront them for fear of losing residency,” the report said.

And without legal status, refugees risk deportation if they move around within the country. If they travel to Syria, they might not be able to re-enter or could be detained as security risks, according to the report.

Some of the refugees interviewed had been arrested during government raids of unofficial refugee camps for not having legal status. While they were detained, some reported being beaten for the purpose of obtaining security-related information. Five refugees said that after they applied for residency and were denied, they were later arrested for lacking legal status.

“The last thing Lebanon needs is a large, undocumented community living at the margins of society, at heightened risk of abuse,” Houry stated.


Aid Drying Up

Legal status aside, the refugees’ needs are dire but the aid is drying up. The United Nations is reducing refugee aid due to a 2015 funding shortfall and the reduction is expected to continue in 2016. After the fifth year of conflict in Syria, there is palpable donor fatigue.

“Here people are really facing death,” Michel Constantin, the regional director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in Beirut, told CNA. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association is a humanitarian aid agency of the Holy See.

Some refugees have cancer, hypertension, and diabetes but lack necessary medications and health care, he said. Hundreds of thousands of children have gone years without schooling.

“The situation is really miserable for everyone,” he said, but insisted that donors must continue to support the Syrians. “It’s really a dying population,” he said.

Meanwhile, the influx of refugees combined with political instability in Lebanon has created a situation described as a “pressure cooker” and a “tinderbox.”

The country has structural problems to begin with. The president must be a Maronite Christian, but because of political divisions among Christians between respective Sunni and Shiite Muslim allies, there is no sitting president.

Furthermore, the national government is generally unable to provide for the basic needs of citizens. As a result, the burden of supporting refugees falls disproportionately on the shoulders of municipalities.


Risking Life to Find Hope

The flood of refugees, many of who lack legal status, has provided a source of cheap labor for employers and depressed employment prospects for Lebanese citizens.

“This is the sad reality now,” Constantin told CNA. “The middle class in Lebanon doesn’t exist anymore. They are all slipping into poverty and into unemployment.”

More and more young people from educated, middle-class backgrounds are leaving the country, even risking a dangerous voyage to Europe.

Constantin shared the story of one 21 year-old Lebanese Christian girl, a college graduate, who couldn’t find a job and left to reach Germany with a group of Syrians. They perished in the Aegean Sea en route to Greece.

For the refugees, the present provides little hope – an estimated 70% of UN refugees are living in poverty and 9 in 10 are “trapped in a vicious cycle of debt,” according to UN reports. The future looks bleak with no end to the Syrian conflict in sight.

“I think it’s a matter of years” before many refugees could return, Constantin said, because even if the conflict ended swiftly the destruction has been so immense.