x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Desperate measures cast a stigma on all Syrian refugee women

No one chooses to become a refugee, and no one wants to be desperate enough to have to turn to prostitution.

Desperation drives people to do things they would never have imagined.

Two of my male Lebanese friends who were at a suhour in downtown Beirut said they were approached by two women who took them to be Syrian. They first asked them for a smoke and then made some inappropriate comments that left the two men confused over whether they were "ladies of the night" or simply over-friendly and forward.

Apparently, they had the stereotypical appearance of a night walker by wearing heavy makeup, revealing clothes and exhibiting certain subtle body language that I was told "only men" would pick up on.

The two insisted the two women who approached them were prostitutes, and they were young - in their early twenties - despite looking older because of their clothes and makeup.

I didn't believe them, as everyone gets hit on in downtown Beirut, and I thought, or rather hoped, that all these women wanted was a free dinner paid for by these two men.

We have been hearing rumours and media reports of some of the Syrian refugees becoming victims of human trafficking, women and children alike, and even of some men exploiting their own wives and sisters and giving them away in marriage to elderly rich men or turning them into prostitutes.

A detailed report published last week in Lebanon's The Daily Star highlighted how prostitution of the Syrian refugee women, or "survival sex" as one of the aid workers described it, has become an organised crime with some Lebanese involved in rounding the women up and dropping them off at different areas throughout and around Beirut.

Statistics compiled since 2009 by Lebanon's Internal Security Forces' Morals Protection Department shows that Syrians are the most frequent victims of human trafficking in Lebanon. Out of a total of 86 victims documented by the ISF, 56 were Syrian. The number of victims has been steadily increasing, with fears that with no end in sight to the war in Syria, the amount of human exploitation of desperate Syrians is bound to increase.

UN officials said this week that the Syrian crisis is deadlier than the Rwandan genocide, a crisis that the world largely ignored in 1994.

With over 6.8 million Syrians needing help, and with on average another 4,200 new refugees crossing into Lebanon each day, stories of tragic human suffering are already the norm.

It is also no surprise that tensions are rising between the host country and its unexpected visitors. Lebanon was already overwhelmed without 100,000 more refugees coming in and needing help. Many Lebanese in areas where there are Syrian refugees complain about the strains on limited resources and concerns about the rise of prostitution.

But again, we have to be careful. I have reported several stories myself where after a crime has been committed in a small community, it was usually the "stranger" - who is not from the country or had recently moved into the neighbourhood - who would get blamed without any evidence. The usual first suspect is always the unwanted visitor.

Earlier last month, a friend told me that in some of the areas of the northern port of Tripoli, there are now cafes known as places to find Syrian prostitutes.

There are reports about Syrian prostitutes in Jordan and in Turkey as well, giving rise to yet another ugly stigma associated with a whole group of people.

One of the difficulties in reporting this issue is that the differences between a human trafficking victim and a prostitute are often blurred, with issues of consent and forced labour at the heart of this matter.

Every war zone gives rise to this tragic side business that many end up exploiting many.

Whatever the case, one has to be careful not to stereotype an entire group of people and not to just hate and resent them collectively.

No one willingly chooses to become a refugee, and no one wants to be homeless and desperate enough to turn to prostitution to make ends meet.

 

ghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter:@Arabianmau