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Human rights watchdog: Syrian women refugees harassed, exploited in Lebanon

Women refugees from Syria are being sexually harassed by employers, landlords and others in Lebanon, adding another layer of suffering for those who have fled their homes in search of safety, an international human rights watchdog said Wednesday.

In a report, Human Rights Watch said most of the incidents have gone unreported to local authorities due to the women's fear of reprisals by the abusers or arrest for not having a valid residency permit.

"Women who have fled death and destruction in Syria should find a safe haven, not sexual abuse, in Lebanon," said Liesl Gerntholtz, women's rights director at the New York-based group.

Lebanon is the biggest recipient of Syrians fleeing the nearly three-year civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. The country of 4.5 million people has taken in more than 1 million Syrian refugees, straining its resources.

Many Lebanese have opened their homes to them, but there are underlying tensions and, as the numbers swell, the Syrians often face hostility and discrimination. They have been blamed for a rise in burglaries and accused of cutting into the job market.

Rights group say female refugees are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by landlords and employers.

Ninette Kelley, the U.N. refugee agency's representative in Lebanon, said the agency has received over 500 cases of women who have been sexually abused or exploited in Lebanon.

"But we know that those numbers aren't entirely accurate because there's a lot of taboo against coming forward and expressing these incidents and these risks in the open," she said in an interview.

Human Rights Watch said it interviewed a dozen women for the report, who described being groped, harassed, and pressured to have sex. Eight of the women are widowed, unmarried, or in Lebanon without their husbands. All 12 women are registered as refugees with UNHCR, it said.

One of them, a woman from Damascus identified by her first name Hala, said she suffered sexual harassment or attempted exploitation in nine of the 10 households in which she had worked in a Beirut suburb to support herself and her four children.

Hala said she now rejects job offers and depends on a church for aid. She said she did not report the incidents to Lebanese authorities or the UN because she did not believe they would help her.

"Government and aid agencies need to open their eyes to the sexual harassment and exploitation of these vulnerable refugees and do everything in their power to stop it," Gerntholtz said.