Confronting the Rise of Trafficking of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Protection Challenges, Legal Barriers and Patterns of Vulnerability

by Megan Denise Smith and Yara Chehwane

Smuggling has been on the rise since the closure of the Syrian–Lebanese border in 2015. Upon first entry to Lebanon, Syrians are already at high risk of exploitation and abuse when often an initial monetary agreement between the refugee and the smuggler develops into a situation of trafficking. Confronted with a variety of issues, mainly limited legal pathways and unequal power relations, such risks persist beyond arrival to Lebanon. This is exacerbated by costly residency renewal procedures and a lack of livelihood opportunities, making refugees more desperate and susceptible to becoming victims of trafficking in human beings (THB).

The 2011 adoption of a law criminalising THB was scrutinised at the outset as an arbitrary move by the Lebanese Government to fend off pressure from the international community (Saghieh 2016). Despite the formal acceptance of Law 164/2011, forced labour and sex trafficking in Lebanon continue to present a serious risk to all vulnerable groups, especially Syrian refugees.

The public debate in Lebanon regarding the lack of leadership of anti-trafficking efforts sparked during the 2016 bust of the largest prostitution ring targeting Syrian refugee women (Najjar 2016). Despite the amount of public attention of the story, there still has been no clear outcome for the case.

Lebanon is a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has a particularly complex relationship to refugee protection, due in part to their ongoing experience with Palestinian refugees[1] (Andersen 2016: 16). This has resulted in Syrians being formally considered ‘displaced’ but still registered with UNHCR.

The majority of Syrians are only able to enter Lebanon as temporary workers and by securing a Lebanese sponsor.

In January 2015, Lebanon effectively closed its borders and granted entry to only specific categories of people for short periods of time, which must be renewed periodically. The majority of Syrians are only able to enter Lebanon as temporary workers and by securing a Lebanese sponsor.

The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) recently reported that ‘the absence of a valid residence permit limits refugees’ access to work opportunities and freedom of movement. Faced with steadily increasing socio-economic vulnerability, families are forced into resort to negative coping mechanisms that further expose them to risks of exploitation and abuse’ (2017: 2).

Such mechanisms have manifested in Lebanon predominately through the forms of child labour and early marriage.

Since the implementation of the new policy in 2015, a rise in entries through smugglers has taken place and a vast majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have surpassed their legal stay and are considered illegal (The Lebanese Center for Human Rights 2016: 17). This puts them under constant threat of arrest and they find themselves in situations of exploitation, detention or destitution.

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 2016. Photo by Timon Koch (www.timonkoch.com)

Sponsorship and Residency Permits

Protection monitoring data[2] indicated that lack of financial means still accounts for the main reason people fail to renew their residency permits, as well as a fear of being detained and subsequently deported if exposed to authorities. However, it should be noted that although deportation orders are formally issued, they are not currently enforced. In addition, other frequently cited reasons for not renewing residency permits include the absence of Lebanese sponsorship and unofficial entry. Refugees interviewed note that the nature of the relationship with the local authorities has become more prone to violence since the start of the crisis, regarding raids in particular.

Refugees are especially vulnerable to exploitation by sponsors who may often force them to work for accommodation and little-to-no payment. Refugees interviewed expressed difficulty in finding Lebanese sponsors, and when they do, sponsors often take advantage of the situation, charging an illegal payment of up to 300 USD.[3] This positions the refugee in an unequal power relationship with the sponsor and can lead to forms of THB, usually forced labour. There is a particular (or heightened) risk of Syrian women being coerced by traffickers, who demand sexual favours in exchange for food, rent, employment and/or shelter. Human Rights Watch (2016: 19) has also highlighted that exploitation, harassment and abuse are widespread, with sponsors threatening to cancel their sponsorship if refugees refuse to undertake certain tasks at work. This has further compounded the strained, tense and unequal relationship between Syrian refugees and Lebanese sponsors.

Due to restriction in movement, refugees are increasingly resorting to risky coping mechanisms such as child labour and early marriage. Child labour has been notably on the rise since the start of the crisis, with children regularly sent out to provide for families since they can pass through checkpoints more freely. Another critical issue due to the lack of economic opportunities has been early marriage, which often results in exploitation or slavery (Lee 2017). Focus group discussion findings and key informant interviews revealed that early marriage has become more widespread since coming to Lebanon. Participants typically considered early marriage as a protective measure owing to dire financial circumstances and unmet basic and essential needs. Families also noted that early marriage was also a protective tool to prevent young boys from going back to Syria to fight (INTERSOS 2016).

Criminal Networks Maximising on Refugees

A dubious legal situation, limited livelihood options and an unwillingness to report problems to official authorities means that criminal networks can easily prey on refugees. False advertisements for jobs, sponsors, and resettlement to third countries are utilised, which means that often refugees fall into situations of accumulating debts and increasing vulnerability (Freedom Fund 2016: 3).

Refugees interviewed stated that they tend to report such issues to Lebanese and sometimes Syrian community leaders who may use their immediate circle of influence for the protection of their community. However, participants also acknowledged that the key figures that conserve to protect and responsibly guide refugee decision-making are often potential perpetrators for exploitation themselves (Inter-Agency Coordination Lebanon 2016: 1).

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 2016. Photo by Timon Koch (www.timonkoch.com)

Humanitarian Response

At the global humanitarian coordination level, some forms of THB and exploitation are referred to in the framework of the Global Protection Cluster and its two relevant areas of responsibility: Gender Based Violence and Child Protection. However, many other forms of THB and exploitation, such as exploitation of stranded migrants, displaced population resorting to unsafe migration (smuggling), abductions of stranded migrants or migrant workers, victims of trafficking from labour exploitation, slavery, forced begging, and organ removal, remain unaddressed, therefore representing an important protection gap in crisis settings.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has identified the need to adopt a humanitarian response centred on THB, and has also noted that the absence of baseline data further constrains an adequate monitoring system and response both in routine and crisis situations (2015: 6). There are a variety of different reasons why the humanitarian community overlooks human trafficking in crisis situations. The report notes:

This complexity is highlighted in the fact that there are grey areas between forced labour, gender-based violence, exploitation, abduction, and trafficking

This complexity is highlighted in the fact that there are grey areas between forced labour, gender-based violence, exploitation, abduction, and trafficking; and hence, defining whether someone is a victim of trafficking or exclusively a victim of labour exploitation can be tricky (Lungarotti, Tillinac, and Craggs cited in IOM 2015: 3).

Furthermore, THB is documented less so than other crimes and not always identified and investigated adequately, particularly in crisis situations with scarce resources and challenging environments to work in (ibid. 2015: 3).

This is echoed in response efforts in Lebanon in which the protection sector has limited experience related to THB specifically. When survivors are able to approach humanitarian agencies themselves, the cases are treated individually as part of case management or short-term cash and/or legal assistance (INTERSOS 2016). Protection is largely ad-hoc, short term and limited in scope, producing an unsustainable system where survivors can easily fall back into an exploitative situation. Sufficient response efforts require rigorous multiagency and state actor involvement, which is challenging as THB tends to be subsumed into larger thematic umbrellas aligned with the global humanitarian coordination structure. As a result, these agencies and actors often lack the leadership, tools, and resources to be able to respond to such complex cases, let alone develop any kind of prevention strategy.

Recommendations and Next Steps

The Lebanese government should ensure the proper application of the existing anti-trafficking policies, and cooperate with other actors to implement an appropriate legal framework. Although there were noticeable steps made by the government to counter THB, prevention, response and prosecution of perpetrators fall short. A greater commitment is needed from key stakeholders, such as the Lebanese Internal Security forces, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Labour and the judicial system. In addition, the humanitarian community can help to build upon existing state efforts through greater cooperation and advocacy on the issue as well as through capacity building and training.

Relatedly, humanitarian agencies need to fully integrate identification tools and more rigorous monitoring systems for reporting THB. Questionnaires and tools to identify and support victims exist but are usually tailored to states and police forces, since THB has previously been regarded as a state legislative issue. Although specific guidelines and indicators for a multiagency approach do exist, such as the Development of a Transnational Referral Mechanism for Victims of Trafficking between Countries of Origin and Destination (TRM-EU) (Orfano 2010), they are often unevenly applied or even unknown to many humanitarian agencies.

Survivors face unclear and uncoordinated pathways to protection, limited legal aid, and inadequate direct assistance.

Though the adaptation of these tools is certainly possible, clear guidelines, training, and ongoing international support are crucial to ensure they are being used appropriately, in the same vein as a proper data collection system. An effective monitoring system could enable humanitarian agencies and states to better compare with neighbouring countries affected by migration flows. In this way, key stakeholders could be better equipped to identify and address the intersections of smuggling and trafficking, tailor programming to the most vulnerable refugees and understand the responsibilities of destination, transit and origin countries to assist, protect and empower trafficked persons.

Survivors face unclear and uncoordinated pathways to protection, limited legal aid, and inadequate direct assistance. Anti-trafficking efforts in Lebanon will require a more robust multiagency approach and greater cooperation between key state, humanitarian and civil society actors in order to develop a comprehensive and effective THB prevention and response framework.


Yara Chehwane is a Legal Protection Officer for INTERSOS in Beirut where she focuses on issues related to gender-based violence and child protection in Lebanon. She has provided public policy and human rights research for Lebanese media outlets and research institutions and is particularly interested in public international law in the Middle East.

Megan Denise Smith is a humanitarian worker currently based in Beirut as a Protection Specialist with INTERSOS. Prior to this, she worked for several NGOs in Lebanon, Egypt and East Africa focusing on issues of exploitation and abuse in mixed migration flows. She holds an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science where her research focused on human rights, forced migration and normative legal frameworks in refugee protection.

INTERSOS is a humanitarian non-profit organization, headquartered in Rome, supporting populations at risk and victims of natural calamities and armed conflicts. In 2017, INTERSOS is active in 19 countries in the world with its largest mission at present in Lebanon as part of the Syria regional refugee response.


The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of OxMo or INTERSOS.


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[1] Out of the roughly five million Palestine refugees registered in the region with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Lebanon is host to 513,000, which also constitutes ten per cent of the country’s total population (UNRWA 2016: 1).

[2] Protection monitoring is about collecting, verifying, and analysing information in order to identify human rights violations and protection risks encountered by displaced persons. This is often carried out through a combination of quantitative and qualitative methodologies such as mapping exercises, assessments (using bio-data, eviction, raid and referral tools and an incident tracker), focus group discussions and key informant interviews. For more guidance refer to UNHCR (1999).

[3] Qualitative and quantitative data was collected through community and household level assessments, based on mapping exercises targeting around 1,570 Informal Tented Settlements (102,375 individuals were assessed). Other methodologies included focus group discussions, key informant interviews and information gathered through awareness sessions on the following themes: access to safety and protection; residency; civil status and documentation; physical security/access to justice; onward movement; and other protection issues such as exploitation and abuse; child protection and social cohesion. Data was collected from December 2015 to December 2016 in Zahlé, West Bekaa, and Rachaya by INTERSOS’s protection monitoring teams, outreach volunteers and community services field staff.