Syrian refugees in Lebanon are falling into slavery and exploitation

By Katharine Jones, Coventry University

Five years after the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Syrians now make up the largest refugee population in the world. Of the 5m women, men and children who fled Syria, more than 1m sought protection in Syria’s neighbour and former “colony”, Lebanon. But safety eludes them: hundreds of thousands of refugees who’ve fled to Lebanon now face abject poverty, living in precarious and often unsafe accommodation, and scraping by with the barest of means.

A new report from the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, supported by the Freedom Fund, has also found that more and more refugees in Lebanon are falling prey to slavery and exploitation.

One of the biggest problems is child labour. We estimate that 60-70% of Syrian refugee children (those under 18) in Lebanon are working. Rates are even higher in the Beqaa Valley in the east of the country, where children aged as young as five pick beans, figs and potatoes. In towns and cities, Syrian children work on the streets, begging, selling flowers or tissues, shining shoes, and cleaning car windscreens. Children also work in markets, factories, auto repair shops, aluminium factories, grocery and coffee shops, in construction and running deliveries.

Syrian families in Lebanon are increasingly marrying their young teenage daughters to older Syrian men, usually aged in their twenties and thirties. While we did not find evidence of child trafficking as has been reported in the refugee camps of Jordan, girls often do not consent to these marriages, and they cannot realistically choose to leave their husbands. Once married, they very probably have no choice about whether or when to have sex, and are likely to face domestic violence.

Beyond child marriage, sexual exploitation is a growing issue for female refugees in Lebanon. Humanitarian organisations in Lebanon often talk about “survival sex” among refugee populations – for example, sex as a form of payment to people smugglers.

[Read more…]

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No way out: How Syrians are struggling to find an exit

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Eleonora Vio reports: Over the last five years, close to 4.8 million Syrians have fled the conflict in their country by crossing into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But as the war drags on, neighbours are sealing their borders. Forced from their homes by airstrikes and fighting on multiple fronts, the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers now have no legal escape route.

Earlier this week, EU leaders reached a hard-won deal with Turkey aimed at ending a migration crisis that has been building since last year, and that in recent weeks has seen tens of thousands of migrants and refugees stranded in Greece. But the agreement turns a blind eye to the fact that even larger numbers of asylum seekers are stranded back in Syria, unable to reach safety.

Syrians hoping to apply for asylum in Europe first have to physically get there. EU member states closed their embassies in Syria at the start of the conflict, and even embassies and consulates in neighbouring countries have been reluctant to process visa and asylum applications.

When Syria’s war erupted in March 2011, it was initially relatively easy for most refugees to leave the country. Those without the means to fly poured out in waves of tens of thousands across land borders into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But one by one, these exits have been restricted or closed off entirely. [Continue reading…]

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An ‘empire of women’ in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

Dylan Collins writes: As young Syrian refugee students celebrated International Women’s Day in the Bekaa Valley this week, education advocate Nora Jumblatt highlighted the increasingly important role of women throughout the refugee community. The war in Syria, despite its chaos and sadness, she said, has given rise to a “little miracle”

The war in Syria has brought about an “empire of women” in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, said civil society leader and education advocate Nora Jumblatt during a celebration of International Women’s Day.

Hundreds of young Syrian refugee girls participated in the festivities held at the Kayany Foundation’s Malala School in Bar Elias, a town equidistant from Beirut and Damascus that sits along the Syrian-Lebanese border. With the help of international organizations, local universities and volunteers, the foundation is empowering a new generation of Syrian women, equipping them with the tools and knowledge they’ll need to rebuild their country. [Continue reading…]

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Russia freezes delivery of S-300 missile defense to Iran, reports Kuwaiti newspaper

The Times of Israel reports: ssian President Vladmir Putin reportedly froze the transfer of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran after receiving evidence from Israel that Tehran had transferred advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

The Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida published the unconfirmed report on Saturday, citing an unnamed source allegedly “familiar” with Putin.

The source said that Putin scuppered the delivery after Israel showed that Iran had repeatedly attempted to transfer the SA-22 Greyhound short-range air defense system to the Lebanese-based terrorist group.

The report also said that Russian pilots claimed to have detected the presence of advance anti-aircraft systems in Hezbollah-controlled territory straddling the Syria-Lebanon border.

Israel, according to the report, has turned a blind eye to the Iranian-backed group’s possession of the Soviet-made SA-5 Gammon surface-to-air missile system, known also as the S-200. [Continue reading…]

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Drought in eastern Mediterranean Levant region worst in 900 years, study finds

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American Geophysical Union: A new study finds that the recent drought that began in 1998 in the eastern Mediterranean Levant region, which comprises Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey, is likely the worst drought of the past nine centuries.

Scientists reconstructed the Mediterranean’s drought history by studying tree rings as part of an effort to understand the region’s climate and what shifts water to or from the area. Thin rings indicate dry years while thick rings show years when water was plentiful.

In addition to identifying the driest years, the science team discovered patterns in the geographic distribution of droughts that provides a “fingerprint” for identifying the underlying causes. Together, these data show the range of natural variation in Mediterranean drought occurrence, which will allow scientists to differentiate droughts made worse by human-induced global warming. The research is part of NASA’s ongoing work to improve the computer models that simulate climate now and in the future.

“The magnitude and significance of human climate change requires us to really understand the full range of natural climate variability,” said Ben Cook, lead author and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City. [Continue reading…]

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Russia intel chief died in Beirut, diplomat tells Al-Akhbar

NOW reports: A Lebanese daily has further fueled the rumors swirling around the January death of Russia’s military intelligence chief, publishing an article alleging that Colonel-General Igor Sergun died in Lebanon.

In a report published on Thursday, Al-Akhbar’s Jean Aziz spoke to an unnamed diplomat based in London, who speculated on the circumstances of the intelligence chief’s mysterious death.

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that Sergun had died suddenly at age 58 on January 3, 2016, but did not specify the location or cause of his death. The terse nature of the statement sparked rumors over what had happened to him, while reports in Russian media said that an acute heart attack brought on by stress had killed the high-ranking officer.

For his part, the diplomatic source told Al-Akhbar that “information in London suggests that the top Russian military and intelligence official died in Beirut.”

The source also said that he could not “rule out that his death could have been the result of a complicated intelligence security operation in which several Arab and Middle Eastern intelligence actors may have participated.” [Continue reading…]

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Hezbollah sees new struggle in Lebanon, denounces Saudi Arabia

Reuters reports: Hezbollah said on Tuesday that Lebanon had been pushed into a new phase of political conflict by Saudi Arabia but was not on the brink of civil war and its government of national unity should survive.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Iranian-backed group, also stepped up criticism of Saudi Arabia, accusing it of directing car bombings in Lebanon, an arena for sectarian-tinged Iranian-Saudi rivalry that is escalating across the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia had no immediate response to the accusation.

Relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have been plunged into crisis since Riyadh halted $3 billion in aid to the Lebanese army – a response to the Beirut government’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Riyadh’s wrath towards Lebanon

Alex Rowell writes: Beginning with its surprise suspension of $4 billion in pledged aid to the Lebanese army and Internal Security Forces on February 19, Saudi Arabia has undertaken an extraordinary set of punitive measures against Lebanon and Lebanese nationals, including warning its own citizens against traveling to the country (a step later emulated by the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait); designating several Lebanese companies and individuals as “terrorists;” and firing at least 90 Lebanese expatriates from their jobs in the Kingdom.

Most recently, speculation has mounted that Saudi and other Gulf states could also withdraw their deposits in Lebanon’s central bank (said to amount to around $900 million out of Lebanon’s total foreign reserves of over $37 billion), while Saudi sources told NOW investment from the Kingdom in Lebanon had likely ceased already.

“I’m sure a Saudi businessman, even without receiving a telephone call from his government […] is very much reluctant to invest more in Lebanon right now,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former advisor to then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal.

Officially, the trigger for this sudden deterioration in Riyadh-Beirut ties was the refusal by Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil to sign a recent Arab League statement condemning Iran and Hezbollah in the wake of the January attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The anti-Hezbollah March 14 coalition subsequently blamed the loss of Saudi’s $4 billion donation on the Party of God, which it accused of forcing its ally Bassil’s hand. Hezbollah has substantially escalated its rhetoric in general against the Kingdom in recent weeks, with leader Hassan Nasrallah calling it a “takfiri and terrorist” state and mass-murdering agent of Western imperialism and Zionism in a January speech, drawing repeated chants of “Death to the Saud family!” from the audience. Responding to calls for an apology to Saudi Friday, Hezbollah’s deputy leader Naim Qassem said it was Saudi who ought to apologize to Lebanon: “Saudi Arabia is the one that attacked us, we did not attack it.” [Continue reading…]

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Arab Winter: Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

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Syrian refugee children subjected to forced labor and early marriage in Lebanon

Nick Grono writes: I met six-year-old Mustafa in the safe zone of one of the many tented settlements for Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. These areas offer schooling, including art and music classes, for Syrian children. They provide a respite from the brutal realities of life as a refugee, which can involve back-breaking labour for children as young as six, and marriage for girls at the age of 13.

Mustafa told us that, after leaving class at midday, he would spend the afternoon carting bricks to earn a pittance for his family. One of his classmates, a seven-year-old girl, said she picks potatoes every afternoon – tough, physical work that involves constant bending while carrying a heavy load.

Officially, Lebanon is home to almost 1.2 million refugees, but unofficial estimates put it at more than 1.5 million. Given that its prewar population was just over 4 million, this is an overwhelming burden, one with which any government would struggle to cope.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Most have little or no money, yet they have to pay landlords for the patches of land on which they erect their tents, and to supplement the meagre aid handouts they may be fortunate enough to receive. But the Lebanese government – keen to stop Syrians settling permanently in Lebanon – is preventing refugees from working or even residing legally in the country. It is refusing to issue work permits except in exceptional circumstances. And it is now very difficult for Syrians to obtain residency permits – a key obstacle being a $200 (£140) annual fee per adult refugee – meaning most are breaking the law simply by staying in the country (pdf).

This creates conditions ripe for abusive employers to exploit vulnerable refugees. Because they don’t have the necessary papers, refugees live in fear of coming into contact with the authorities, particularly at the many checkpoints throughout the country. As children are less likely to be stopped at checkpoints, they are forced to work in the fields or in nearby towns. Unscrupulous employers prefer them because they are more compliant, and more unwilling to complain about physical abuse. For this laborious and often hazardous work, they are paid a few dollars at most, a portion of which is often retained by the Syrian settlement leader. [Continue reading…]

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How a former Lebanese politician was caught on tape plotting terrorism on behalf of Bashar al-Assad — and still got away with it

The Daily Beast reports: Rarely does a criminal case fall into a judge’s lap as open-and-shut as Michel Samaha’s.

Yanked out of his bed by Lebanese police in a dawn raid on August 9, 2012, within one day the four-time cabinet minister had confessed to conspiring with Syrian officials, up to and including President Bashar al-Assad himself, to blow up Sunni Muslim Lebanese politicians, religious figures, and bystanders at Ramadan fast-breaking gatherings. Thanks to a series of videos leaked to the media, a flabbergasted nation could watch with their own eyes as Samaha, a veteran politician and household name, produced bags of explosives, timers, and detonators from his car, and spoke casually of plans to murder an MP, members of the MP’s family, and senior clerics (“let them be buried”), with express indifference to additional civilian casualties (“whoever departs along the way, departs!”). There seemed no conceivable way out of a severe punishment, and at his formal indictment in February 2013, the judge sought the death penalty.

And yet, on the 14th of this month, Samaha walked out of Lebanon’s Rayhanieh prison and returned to his family home in Beirut an almost-free man, released on $100,000 bail. Despite the gravity of the charges brought against him in 2013 — plotting to carry out “terrorist acts” using explosive devices; planning assassinations of political and religious figures; instigating sectarian conflict; and forming an armed group—he was sentenced to just four and a half years’ imprisonment in May 2015, in a decision legal observers said reeked of Syrian influence over the judiciary. [Continue reading…]

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Without education, Syria’s children will be a lost generation

Gordon Brown writes: mid the Syrian chaos of carnage, starvation and evacuation, there is a tiny glimmer of hope. The Lebanese government has declared that it has taken 207,000 Syrian refugee children off the streets and given them places in their country’s public schools.

And today I am setting out a plan to extend the opportunity of education to 1 million refugee boys and girls across Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey during the course of 2016 – with the ambition that by next year every refugee child will be offered a place at school.

Through a combination of generous European Union funding by development commissioner Johannes Hahn and contributions from both public and private sectors in the region itself, $250m has been raised – the first instalment of the $750m we need to deliver this bold initiative. And in the run-up to the UN pledging conference in London on 4 February we are asking donors from public and private sectors to do more.

What has unlocked the chance of hundreds of thousands of extra school places is the introduction of a “double-shift school system”. Local Lebanese children are educated in the morning in their neighbourhood schools but the same classrooms are now being thrown open to refugee children in the afternoon and early evenings.

Because the double-shift system uses existing schools and so avoids the huge capital costs of building, the average cost is just $10 per school place per week. Already 200 Lebanese schools are offering double-shift education and there are now robust plans to offer 400,000 places by doubling the number of schools.

And as a direct result of Lebanon’s success, Turkey and Jordan are now ready to make double-shift schools the centrepiece of this year’s educational efforts for refugees. Working with Unicef, Turkey has set out its goals to double its school places for refugees to more than 450,000 this year. In Jordan, where just over 100,000 refugees are already in school, the aim is to double places. [Continue reading…]

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What now for Lebanon and Syria?

Alex Rowell writes: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam may have declared himself hopeful for positive change in 2016, but if the year continues in the vein of its first five days, he appears destined for disappointment. The execution by Saudi Arabia of leading Shiite cleric and opposition activist, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the subsequent torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which in turn led Riyadh and a number of its allies to sever or downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran, had by Tuesday escalated into bloodshed, with Sunni mosques bombed and a muezzin gunned down by suspected Shiite militants in Iraq; a Shiite resident of Saudi’s eastern province also fatally shot; and a reported intensification of Saudi air strikes on Shiite rebel targets in Yemen.

In Lebanon, no violence has yet broken out, but the political atmosphere has been considerably poisoned. On Sunday, Tehran ally Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave an extraordinarily foul-tempered speech, going far further in criticisms of Saudi Arabia than he ever has previously. Likening the “takfiri and terrorist” state to both ISIS and Israel, he accused the ruling family of being a mass-murdering agent of Western imperialism and Zionism, drawing multiple outbursts of “Death to the Saud family!” chants from the crowd. In an unabashedly sectarian analogy, he compared Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to the Prophet’s granddaughter, Zainab bint Ali, “speaking truth to Ibn Ziad and Yazid bin Mu`awiya,” thereby overtly tying the controversy into a 1,300-year-old Sunni-Shiite conflict.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, officials from Hezbollah’s main Lebanese rival, the Saudi-backed Future Movement, told NOW the new state of affairs would complicate the resolution of various pressing matters, including the twenty-month-long presidential vacuum. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s plan for Syria without Assad

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Joyce Karam writes: On February 25, 1987, late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad sent his troops to the Fathallah barracks in West Beirut, where they killed twenty-seven members of Hezbollah in a move designed to show Syria’s upper hand over Iran in Lebanon. Almost three decades later, this modus operandi is completely reversed under Assad the son, as Syria sinks into a war of attrition and Tehran gains the upper hand in Damascus.

For Iran, Bashar al-Assad has been a valuable ally but not an indispensable one. His coming to power in 2000, followed by the Iraq war in 2003 and Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, freed Iran’s hand in the Levant. Hezbollah under Bashar al-Assad has received weaponry and political backing unthinkable in his father’s time, including long-range Scud missiles and a 2010 Damascus visit by the party’s chief Hassan Nasrallah. But while Tehran has worked since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011 to prolong Assad’s hold on power, it has also planned from the very early stages of the conflict for the day after, should its ally fall or should the regime lose Damascus.

Even as Iran sits at the negotiating table in Vienna, its strategy overlooks the political debate and the successive failed processes. It is instead rooted in creating new realities and proxies on the ground in Syria, looking beyond Assad and preserving its core interests. These interests are defined today by three goals: (1) Ensuring arms shipments continue to Hezbollah; (2) Gaining a strategic foothold in Levant and against Israel; (3) Preventing a stable government opposed to Iran from fully ruling over Syria. [Continue reading…]

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A Christmas of despair for Syrian Christian refugees in Lebanon

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The Washington Post reports: Not so many years ago, Christmas Day for the Kouriehs began with Mass at the village church. The family would return home for an afternoon feast of rice and meat with sides of salad and hummus.

Neighbors would stop by to extend holiday greetings. Children would play next to the Christmas tree.

That was before the Islamic State and other extremists started kidnapping Christians like the Kouriehs, before the relentless violence, before civil war tore apart their country.

That was before the Kouriehs had to flee Syria for their lives.

“It used to be beautiful there,” Joseph Kourieh, 57, recalled from the dilapidated apartment in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, where he, his wife and five of his grown children now live.

More than a million Syrians have taken refuge in neighboring Lebanon, a country of barely 4 million people that can hardly cope with the influx. Among the mostly Muslim refugees are hundreds and possibly thousands of Syrian Christian families that also endure the hardship and humiliation of displacement. [Continue reading…]

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