The four of us—a woman named Sabeen, two NGO workers, and me—were crowded around a small table, drinking bitter Turkish coffee as the blistering sun shone through the barred windows. The room was stuffy, there was no electricity, and she was whispering, ensuring that no one would hear our conversation. The walls of the center, which is considered a safe haven for victims of abuse and asked for its name not to be used, were covered with signs reading, “Do not abuse me, I am a child.”
Sabeen, a pseudonym for a Palestinian refugee and mother of six, told me about the day she found out her 10-year-old son, Abdul, also not his real name, had been forced into prostitution. She made no attempt to hide the tears streaming down her weary face.
“He dropped his bags off at home after school about 2 p.m.,” she said. “Once it was sunset I started to search for him. I was worried. My other daughter and son hadn’t seen him either, so we searched for him until 10 p.m."
“When he returned his clothes were very dirty and I noticed he wasn’t in a good place. I then found money in his pocket. It was 1500LL ($1). He said no one fucked him. When he said that word I became very curious. I wanted to know what had happened. I found blood and some white spots in his underwear.”
She was advised by a local Palestinian NGO to take her son to Doctors Without Borders for medical treatment. She found out he had been prostituted around a group of men, believed to be in their 40s. Since Abdul has not talked about what happened, it is unclear whether he was sought out by a group of men or whether he did it for the money.
Ein el-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp, located in the southern coastal Lebanese city of Saida, is the largest in the country. There are approximately 47,500 registered refugees in the camp, according to Chris Gunness, a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) spokesman.
It also hosts about 6,500 Palestinian refugees from Syria and an increasing number of Syrian refugees, who, despite having no assistance in the camp, choose to live there because housing options in Lebanon have become scarce or far too expensive.
The lack of income-generating activities in and out of the camp is so dire that many have turned to other means to put food on the table; others are forced.
Psychologist Rewida Ismail works with children and young people in Ein el-Helweh who have been exposed to violence and sexual abuse. As we walked through the camp, she explained that stories of sexual abuse were not uncommon.
“There is harassment between children and children, men and boys and men and small girls. Children as young as 10 are abusing each other. It is not uncommon for an 18-year-old man to abuse a 10-year-old girl or a 40-year-old man to abuse a 10-year-old boy,” she said.
She explained that sexual abuse was increasing as Palestinian refugees from Syria and Syrian refugees continued to flee into the camp, placing more pressure on existing communities. In addition, she said many men struggled with their changed identity after they were no longer seen as breadwinners.
“Men usually ask kids to come to their homes, go to an empty school or out in nature, in a far away place,” she said. “In some cases parents do know, but then many other parents are not aware and the children do not tell them.”
“They are not held to account. There is no justice. There are rarely any serious ramifications. They are not put in jail.”
Ismail said she worked with the perpetrators, as well as victims, to understand why it was happening.
Back in the center, Abdul struts into the room with a beaming smile.
“He will not talk about what happened to him,” Sabeen, who was born in the camp, warned. “We just want to let him forget what happened, so we haven’t talked about it since. I can’t talk about his situation because you know, I am a divorced woman, and people would start to blame me and think it was my fault. We keep the story secret.”
Abdul explained that he had dropped out of school.
“I do nothing. Sometimes I work in a building in construction. But I have an idea to bring motorcycles into the camp and rent them out to people to ride around,” he said.
Though there was a glimmer of hope in his eyes, Sabeen cried. One of her other sons was shot in a fight, and she could not afford medical care. He now has a urine drainage bag attached to his stomach, and they rely on relatives for support.
Ismail added that prostitution was occurring in Ein el-Helweh, but that people turned a blind eye.
“There is prostitution in the camp, but no one ever dares to say who is doing this,” she said.
What's more, a new form of prostitution had development following the Syrian crisis, widely known as “survival sex”.
“Women and girls are being harassed by the refugees themselves, and if anyone gives them some assistance, such as food, then they are obliged to make relations with these men,” she said.
Roberta Russo, the UN’s Refugee Agency spokeswoman in Lebanon, confirmed it was aware of the situation.
“A handful of cases of survival sex were reported since the beginning of 2013. UNHCR is not sure of the exact extent of the problem because survival sex is highly under-reported,” Russo said.
But in a conservative culture that rarely speaks about sex or abuse, justice is rare.
Maher Tabarany, the director of the Home of Hope, a shelter for street children based in Beirut, said prostitution among Syrian refugees was widespread.
“I have a boy here at the moment who was sold to pedophiles by his father. Men would take turns in the bathroom with him. The little boy used to see his dad take money for this,” he said.
“Then I know an 18-year-old married Syrian girl whose husband sends her to work as a prostitute. People will do anything to survive. We have seen it all here. We are going to back to the old days, where women are being enslaved and sold off. There are just no jobs in Lebanon anymore. Human beings these days are cheap.”