BEIRUT: Despite the legal framework in Lebanon to assist victims of human trafficking and prosecute perpetrators, an awareness and recommendations workshop entitled “Trafficking in Persons” Tuesday looked at the gaps that remain in the state’s handling of cases. The workshop was organized by the Arab Center for the Rule of Law and Integrity in cooperation with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and with the participation of lawyers, researchers, security personnel, activists and other experts and stakeholders. The aim of the session was to examine human trafficking in the context of Lebanon.
Experts agree that wars always bring a surge in cases of human trafficking and the Syrian crisis is no different. With the refugee crisis in Lebanon there has been an increase in human trafficking related to sexual abuse, coerced marriage, child abuse and even organ trafficking Caritas Director Rita Rhayem said.
Following Lebanon’s ratification of the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons in 2005, the passing of law 164 in 2011 criminalized human trafficking and provided more protection for victims. However, effectively addressing human trafficking in Lebanon still has a long road ahead to dramatically curtail the crime.
Dr. Hussein Shaaban, a member of the board of trustees of ACRLI, described human trafficking as one of the worst crimes against humanity, particularly because it encompasses the violation of so many human rights. Moreover, he said, trafficking breeds in impoverished and unjust settings and is often hard to follow and prevent. In many cases other crimes – such as prostitution and soliciting – are at the forefront of the issue, covering deeper implications.
According to Dr. Nidal Jurdi, human rights officer and lecturer at AUB, Lebanon has no [official] statistics on trafficking, making it hard for law enforcement in the country to draw patterns and zero in on trafficking networks. In many situation victims are freed, but networks remain at large added Dr. Mohanad al-Dowaikat of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Any coerced exploitation of body or labor is punishable under Law 164 with sentences of between five to 25 years said Mount Lebanon Judge Arlette Tabet, but she highlighted that the number of prosecutions remains low. Tabet also added that in no circumstances should the victim to be penalized in human trafficking cases. “It is difficult to enforce the law because victims are sometimes afraid to talk and give details that would help the case,” said Tabet, who also draws distinctions between trafficking and other forms of abuse.
Rhayem explained that in essence, the trafficking of persons uses violence and threats to force victims into exploitative acts. These can include prostitution, soliciting on the streets, slavery forced labor and arming children conflict, forcing victims into terrorist acts, and removing and trafficking of organs or bodily tissues from the victim.
Jurdi highlighted that while the law is important, the effective application is vital. Moreover, while the work by NGOs to combat trade has been beneficial, the ultimate responsibility lies with the government.
He raised xenophobia and lax governmental efforts as two of the key battlegrounds hampering improvement. “With Law 164, you are [only] addressing the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The environment plays a pivotal role in incubating trafficking, despite the presence of the relevant legal framework. The biggest challenge is in fighting the environment that leads to trafficking, which requires more respect for the rule of law, more equality between men and women, supporting marginalized groups, and [ending] discrimination between locals and foreigners,” he added.
In response to the law, the Internal Security Forces have completed training through the internal human rights department to ensure that cases are handled properly. “We have begun some measures, but we still have a long way to go especially at the level of a political and institutional commitment,” said head of the ISF Human Rights Department Colonel Ziad Kaed Bey at the conference.
Major Talal Yousef of the Directorate of General Security, whose personnel have undergone training to identify victims of trafficking, said that instruction the ISF delivers to units is not enough because it should be a continuous process. Moreover, he affirmed that officers who do not have the proper background should not handle trafficking victims. “It is not acceptable for an officer to interrogate a sexually exploited victim without having a background in criminal science, or having the background that would allow him to internalize the training he is being given,” Youssef said.
Three months ago, Lebanon saw the largest breakup of a human trafficking network in recent years as the Internal Security Forces raided locations in the city of Jounieh, north of Beirut. In the process they freed 75, mostly Syrian girls held against their will and forced into sexual slavery. The bust led to the arrest of 26 people, including eight women who guarded the locations where the sex slaves were being held.
Youssef said that even if some of the women arrested in Jounieh prostitution ring were perpetrators, they have to be treated in a humanitarian manner because the accused also have human rights. “We should not destroy them, but try to understand the cause of their actions.”
Separately, Parliament’s Human Rights Committee continued investigation into the Jounieh ring.
“Human trafficking violates international agreements and hurts Lebanon’s reputation at international forums. Lebanon has always preserved laws, even in the most difficult of times,” said head of the committee, MP Michel Musa, after chairing a meeting Tuesday.
Musa said Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk had assured him that any officers involved in the trafficking ring will be punished, irrespective of rank. Investigations are expected to conclude in July.