How David Cameron has betrayed Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Promises the Prime Minister made to Syrian refugees, along with UN politics, has produced hundreds of thousands of child slaves and prostitutes in Lebanon.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Much has been written of late of how David Cameron would build new relations with the Middle East if Britain were to exit the European Union. It’s unlikely he will follow in the footsteps of Tony Blair, although Cameron too is beginning to establish himself as a PR man who has little more to offer than the words on a press release.

When he pledged to create jobs for Syrian refugees and to return 700,000 children back to school at the so-called London Conference in February, it made good headlines and appeared as a triumph of reason to those living in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Yet this week, following World Day Against Child Labour on Sunday, the promises of the London Conference have failed to materialise – leaving Lebanon’s refugees sinking in a quagmire of desperation which few of the attendees of that conference could even imagine.

According to a recent study by a British academic, Syrian refugees in Lebanon now make up the majority of the country’s prostitutes while a growing number of their children work as “child slaves” in a country, once called the beacon of the Middle East when it came to human rights.

Recent NGO jargon has invented a new lexicon to describe the situation, which includes phrases like “survival sex” – a description of a young Syrian woman’s “extras” she is expected to provide to her employers here, in order to pay for rent and new, crippling residency fees.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon simply can’t pay their way in a country that on the one hand deeply resents their presence, while on the other has little reservation about exploiting them, to the point where they even pay for their water.

Yet who’s really to blame and what can be done about it?

UN agencies I speak to are reluctant to admit the scale of prostitution and try to play down the incendiary report from the London-based Freedom Fund that has thrown the spotlight on subjects the UN would rather have kept hidden. Forced prostitution, “survival sex”, trafficking, child slavery and in some cases even child prostitution are all ailments of a system that is squeezing too hard for one last drop of blood out of these people.

It’s also a symptom of the UN getting the maths wrong and both allowing the Lebanese state to exploit Syrian refugees with unrealistic fees – and living expenses – while also not accepting that this darker, unpalatable reality has now got out of hand.

Yet the crux to the epidemic of wholesale exploitation is Lebanon’s double-barrelled condition of letting them stay: adult men are not allowed to work, and that all “refugees” are not actually, legally speaking, refugees at all – due to Lebanon’s fear that if they are given such a status, they might stay for ever.

Jobs for adults are needed. And jobs were what they were promised in the haze of flashlights and media excitement – which produced the headlines with Cameron very much championing their cause and appearing as the big thinker, with Hollande and Merkel waiting for his lead.

But Britain as well as Lebanon might pay a heavy price for Cameron’s empty promises.

If Lebanon continues with this rancid policy that has produced a new class of slaves, it doesn’t bode well for the future, both for their children who refuse to continue the “theme” and for extremists groups in Syria who might use it as justification to bomb European capitals. Are young Syrian men going to sit by and do nothing and watch their sisters become prostitutes, with little recourse? Or are they going to be pushed over a line and sign up to terrorist groups in neighbouring Syria for a tiny salary to send back to their families? Or even in Lebanon itself? And how long will it take for IS to see what is really happening with Sunni Syrians who fled the war?

UN officials are afraid that if they rock the boat too much, that not only with they lose funding, but they may even anger the Lebanese government, which might make it harder for them to operate.

It might even mean UN officials losing their jobs in Beirut to cut costs of an organisation that one former Transparency International analyst alleged swallows up around 60 per cent of what it receives from donors, in paying salaries.

The UN agencies are also plagued by myriad media investigations that accuse them of corruption and careless spending in Lebanon, and so may not be keen on telling the world that actually Lebanon needs a little more money than Jordan and Turkey, as its circumstances are unique. Donors might suspect foul play.

Of course, western media might also accuse the UN itself for being part of the problem and not the solution, and the Freedom Fund report too claims that the UN gave “little thought towards child labour and trafficking” and still, to this day, doesn’t.

But now the situation is out of hand and it has taken a recalcitrant NGO in London to lift the lid on UN bungling. Two years ago, western journalists in Beirut would habitually pen shocking reports of child marriage. It seems they’ve stopped writing about this now, as for a young girl to be forced into a “child marriage” is appears to be a blessing compared to what the free-market economy of Lebanon can offer her to pay her parents’ rent.

The Freedom Fund report argues that having these issues out on the table will bring more attention and thus funding for the refugees themselves. Isn’t it time that these Lords of Poverty sit up and listen, or are they still waiting for Cameron to make good on his promise?

Martin Jay is the Beirut correspondent for Deutsche Welle and reports for a number of British newspapers on the Middle East. He tweets @MartinRJay.