Structural rape of syrian refugees in Lebanon

On the group-rape of a 14-year-old boy 

Mohammad Al Masri
21 Octobre 2020

The question of why violence, including sexual assault, against Syrian refugees in Lebanon is rapidly increasing might not be easily answered yet,[i] but there is a huge contemporary tendency by anthropologists to approach the issue of collective violence, like this case, from a structural perspective.[ii] It is true that there is no one-fits-all explanation of systematic violence against Syrian refugees in Lebanon but, still, we may be able to trace societal and political dynamics that may have led to the abuse of refugees. When mobilized by a political or religious leader, violence, if structural, does not imply that the attacker is innocent but shows that he might not be the only one responsible for his “rational choices.”[iii] Even if we agree that actor-centric actions are subject to free will, rational decision-making, and individual interpretations of the surrounding context,[iv] we might dare to say that, in cases like the tragedy of “the Syrian boy”,[v] sexual abuse committed by individuals is a result of an active structural systematic violence, meaning, that ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ are not two independent possible factors, but rather two interdependent parallel reasons why violence takes place on a wider scale in contexts like Lebanon.

In 2017, a friend of mine, Anas, a healthy father of two in his 30s who had volunteered as a nurse for six years in different hospitals to save civilians during the civil war, died in Lebanese custody. The official report stated that he, and four other civilian detainees, who were randomly arrested during raids on the refugee camps of Aarsal, died in detention due to heart attacks and heat strokes.[vi] Despite the marks of torture, none of the Military Intelligence soldiers were held accountable. This is only one of many cases of refugee victims I could recall when I first heard the story of the 13-year-old Syrian boy who had been raped for two years,[vii] unable to report and get justice through legal means and would not have dared to speak up had the attackers not been reckless enough to share their last crime on social media bragging about it. Watching this boy, abused by eight local perpetrators,[viii] screaming and trying to run away while they were laughing was very painful and shocking for me but still not unexpected. 

As a Syrian refugee who lived for five years in Lebanon, my feeling of anger was not only towards the hysterically laughing perpetrators but towards the whole political structure that led up to this crime. Actually, all I could see in the video were glimpses of countless accidents of ongoing violence that I have read about or witnessed during the five years I spent in this country and the attacks that kept happening again and again. What I can definitely assure is that the assault by these eight Lebanese individuals, which went viral over the media of the Arab region, is just the tip of a structural iceberg that has been gradually formed mainly by leaders of the political parties, media channels, a failed judicial system, and the Lebanese government, as an all-in-all result.

The perpetrators live in Sohmor, a town in West Beqaa with important political influence and presence, particularly of those who have played a role in the displacement of tens of thousands of Syrians from their villages located near the Lebanese borders,[ix] including my own village.[x] Since “destiny is sarcastic,” as we say in Syria; citizens of these Syrian villages became refugees in Lebanon, a State where these political parties themselves enjoy strong presence and influence. If we try to imagine the criminals’ daily routine, what do we expect of reckless youth living in this protected environment enjoying the impunity of armed power and connections? What to expect of someone watching local broadcasting channels, the main source of information in the country,[xi] where refugees have been systemically stigmatized, stereotyped, and demonized for nine long years? How would their attitudes be towards Syrian refugees, who are falsely linked with failure of the economy, increase of crime rate and even the spread of cancer,[xii] and seeing a politician, who kept repeating that the Syrian refugees’ issue was a “huge threat” to the Lebanese nation, become the president? [xiii]

These perpetrators have seen criminals who kidnapped a Syrian girl here,[xiv] or killed a Syrian guy there,[xv]walking down the street smoking hashish freely and untouched, a few weeks after committing their crimes because of their strong ties to political parties, or they might have heard a member of a political party threating a Syrian activist to deport her back to the Assad regime which is known for blatant human rights violations, primarily against military defects and human rights defenders.[xvi] If not, they may have read the story or seen the video of a Syrian child, Ahmad, getting followed by Beirut municipality police officers for illegally polishing the shoes of passersby, catching him after a long chase, before throwing him from the sixth floor, then walking away freely despite the chase getting caught on CCTV, followed by a statement from the governor of Beirut accusing the boy for robbery implying that he was just a Syrian thief.[xvii]

With this variety of potential strategies to escape accountability, would it be unexpected, for a Lebanese abuser, to kill some random Syrian guy over an argument? Would it matter to anyone in such a political system? Who is going to prioritize justice of a dead girl or a raped boy in such media channels? Does a State that deports refugees back to a country where they are at risk, [xviii] and gives a blind eye to the thugs who were burning the camps of Syrian refugees who tried everything including suicide attempts,[xix] and literally setting themselves on fire to escape this hell,[xx] really care about refugees? Would proud and openly racist politicians take responsibility for their rhetoric speeches and which were linked to the increase of hostility against refugees? [xxi] Would any political leader in Lebanon apologize for this structural violence against refugees that left them facing exploitation, rape, and murder without offering minimum needed protection after being displaced by their own political decisions and agendas?  

Unfortunately, this will not be the last attack even if the perpetrators were hanged in public, because the structural actors are still contributing, directly and indirectly, to the recurrence of more and more violence in the future. Categorizing Lebanon as a failed state might be an easy way to get a short answer but it does not provide a proper explanation for the question of why these attacks are rapidly increasing. Investigating the group-rape of this Syrian boy and sending the eight criminals to prisons is absolutely necessary, but we must not forget the fact that this kid was not only the victim of these perpetrators; he, like all other vulnerable victims, was violated by a corrupt political and societal system that created these monsters. What is more important than investigating this particular case is analyzing what and who is responsible for making the crimes of kidnapping, raping and killing Syrians an easy thing that can be forgotten after a couple of days with no legal consequences. As a person who loves Lebanon the same way I love my own country, I am afraid that injustice and structural crimes are contagious and will not be limited to vulnerable groups, since nationalists consider refugees as less important. Historically speaking, when criminals have the right structural environment they might end up setting their own cities on fire and enjoy the show like what Nero of Rome has done and like what the Nero of Damascus has relentlessly been doing since 2011.

Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Access Center of Human Rights (ACHR)