Forced Sex Work in Lebanon .. Female Refugees Are the Majority

“No one forced her to do it.”

“She could have had any other job.”

 “She sold her honor.” 

These are just examples of the phrases and opinions we encounter while discussing women who engage in sexual activity, or “prostitution,” as it is known in Lebanese law and popular culture.

It is a topic that is still the subject of great controversy and debate, especially within feminist and human rights circles. 

Opinions vary between those who support the right of women to engage in sex work as a profession while demanding its legislation and regulation and ensuring protection mechanisms for them, and those who see exploitation, violence, and trafficking rooted in a patriarchal, discriminatory culture against women and girls.

In this article, we will discuss the issue of forced sex work, which victimises some of the most marginalised women in Lebanon, especially Syrian refugees and migrant workers.

According to figures and statistics from the General Directorate of Public Security, the number of Syrian refugee women arrested for “sex work” between 2011 and 2018 was very high. 

They constituted 30% of the arrestees, and this number rose to 69% after only two years, then 77% in 2015, and reached 57% in 2018.

Sources from the Lebanese General Security revealed that Lebanese women and girls, and Syrian refugees—who are forced into sex work because of their precarious situation—constitute a large percentage of victims of human trafficking and forced labor.

According to the work conducted over the years with female detainees in Hobeish police station by the “KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation” organization, the percentage of Syrian refugee women constituted more than half of the number of detainees, ranging between 60 and 65 percent.

“Most of these women were living in very difficult financial and social conditions before they worked in this field,” Julie El-Khoury, Program Coordinator in the Human Trafficking Unit in KAFA said.

According to El Khoury, the victims are generally women and underage girls, some of whom come from family backgrounds full of physical or sexual violence by members of the family or by strangers. Often, their legal conditions, such as the difficulty of obtaining legal papers and residence permits, in conjunction with their low educational level and the difficulty of finding work or housing, along with the accumulation of debts, are among the most prominent factors that make them fall victim to this work.

Europeans are victims too

Refugee women are not the only targets. 

The list includes Ethiopian and Sudanese women, as well as women from several other nationalities, who were domestic workers and had escaped from the homes of their sponsors, only to become victims of gangs forcing them into sex work.

Sources from the Lebanese General Security indicated that more than 5,000 women working in this profession come from Eastern European countries. 

A study conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and International Crime in Beirut, in cooperation with the Lebanese Ministry of Justice in 2008, revealed that a very large number of victims of human trafficking and forced sex work, come from poor countries fleeing misery to Lebanon on the basis that they will work as dancers or models in exchange for a fee that they cannot collect in their native countries. 

They sign a work contract written in Arabic, which means that they do not understand its content, and when they arrive in Lebanon, they become aware of the ruse.

This is exactly what happened to Gigi, who came to Lebanon to work and found herself kidnapped, and a hostage.

Gigi did not sleep the night she traveled to Beirut, thinking about what this trip would bring her, “Tomorrow, I will start a new and dignified life with my child,” she said to herself.

All she wanted was to escape the poverty in Ukraine, but her dreams were soon extinguished when she arrived at Beirut airport. Her passport was taken from her and handed over (as she learned later) to the owner of a nightclub in the Jounieh-Al-Moameltin area. 

She was subjected to medical examinations to ensure that she was not pregnant, and that she did not have any sexually transmitted diseases. 

Then, she was taken to a room and forced to remain in it until the results of the tests came back. At the 72nd hour, she was told: “Congratulations, you’re clean. You start work today. “

The work awaiting her in Lebanon had nothing to do with modeling, as she was promised. She resisted and refused to submit to their orders. 

Her “punishment” was violence and starvation. 

When she demanded to return to her country, she was told that she must pay the full cost of her recruitment.

Which meant that she had to be forced into sexual practises that she did not want to commit; she had to visit with the customers of the club until late at night, and when she caught someone’s eye, he would pay her fee directly to the club and pick her up the next day in her free time.

Not a single customer looked like the others. Each had different desires, some of which were strange and frightening.

Gigi’s life became tied up in the hands of these people, as if she had been kidnapped. She is not allowed to go out or talk to anyone.

This story, which conveys the suffering of victims of human trafficking in Lebanon, is nothing but an example of the a series of other stories that people don’t know; stories full of pain and torment.

What is the definition of sex trafficking in international law?

Forced sex work is one type of human trafficking.

Article 3A  of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol defines it as “the recruitment or use of persons without their consent or by force to exploit them in several ways, including in the field of prostitution or sexual acts.”

What is the definition of sex trafficking in international laws?

Forced sex work is one type of human trafficking. Article 3a of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol defines it as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation.”

The so-called “Prostitution Law” was approved in Lebanon in 1931 during the French Mandate era, and its aim was to satisfy the wishes of its soldiers. 

The law allows licencing for women and sex work houses. However, it is not put into practice, as the last license was issued in 1977, meaning everyone who works in this field today is unlicensed.

According to Julie El-Khoury, Lebanon is “a source and destination for sexual trafficking in persons, and these closed houses are stretched across Super Night Clubs, the Internet, massage parlors, or even on the streets, despite the fact that this phenomenon is prohibited and criminalised in the country.”

While Law No. 164 was issued in 2011, which punishes anyone who “works in human trafficking and asks victims to engage in sexual work in exchange for material or other benefits. The punishment includes imprisonment for up to 5 years and a fine of between 100 and 200 times the minimum wage. But if these acts are carried out using violence, deception, threats, or other types of pressure on the victim, the penalty will be imprisonment for 7 years.”

According to El-Khoury, the law is not effective and does not aim to protect the victim-survivor or to intensify punishment for the perpetrators of the crime and the evidence of its ineffectiveness is the case of the nightclubs Chez Maurice and Silver, where what is considered the largest and most dangerous sex trafficking network in Lebanon was arrested, which included about 75 girls, most of whom were Syrian refugees or girls who were brought from Iraq in different ways.

During the investigations, the girls confirmed that they were “subjected to the worst kinds of beatings, detention, and torture,” and that most of them were “deceived to work in this field after they were promised honourable jobs.”

This case dates back to 2011, when the police raided the place for the first time without taking any measures, and then the network was revealed in 2016. However, to date, this case is still being processed in the courts, and the victim-survivors have not received any protection. 

The traffickers and exploiters were not punished as promised by the law, and the owner of the two nightclubs’ partner was released on bail for 20 million Lebanese pounds in 2017, one year after the major scandal.

Five years passed between 2011 and 2016, in which the state agencies knew about this network and its operation in these two nightclubs. No measures were taken until the media highlighted the scandal of the 75 hostages. 

Does this network have political and security protections? Keeping in mind that the owner was arrested for 3 months while the operation did not stop?

According to an article by Hadeel Farfour in the Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar, a large number of these night clubs get shut down and sealed with red wax for two days or less.

When the relevant agencies arrest a member of the network or one of the girls who were forced into sex work, they are released without completing the procedures or investigations and without providing protection for the girls, despite the fact that Article 523 of the Penal Code equally criminalises the victim-survivor and those who force her to do this work.

In other words, according to the law, exploited women are held accountable as well as the owner of a cabaret or the head of the exploited network. However, victim-survivors are not subject to the trafficking law like “human traffickers.”

On the contrary, we see the blame is always placed on them and even on the first perpetrator of the crime, while those who request these services, and make up the main loop in this chain, are overlooked, even though the basis of trafficking is fulfilling their desires.

However, the law is not applied, as El-Khoury mentioned, while the arrest of the victim-survivors continues, turning them into “guilty culprits” despite all the violations they were subjected to while being forced to do this work.

So, who protects victims of sexual exploitation?

The most prominent role in protecting victims of sexual exploitation is attributed to associations and non-governmental organisations that intervene to secure and protect them from this crime. It also protects victims and survivors of gender-based violence.

KAFA is one of the most prominent of these associations, and it provides all forms of support and services to these women by providing shelters and social, health, psychological, and legal services, as well as empowerment opportunities and capacity building.

We can write a lot of articles about this phenomenon with numbers and facts, but the real stories are the most painful in this case. 

Gigi and other women continue to suffer in the prison imposed by two men: one who loves money, violence, and power, and the other who sees in women only what satisfies his sexual desires at any cost.

Therefore, if you have ever said the phrases and judgements that blame the victim, that we started this article with, about any woman, then you now know who forced her, kidnapped her, and denied her freedom.

If you are subjected to any form of violence, we provide a list of the most prominent organizations and bodies located on all Lebanese land that are rehabilitative. We are ready to provide free legal, psychological, and social counselling and services at any time.

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