BEIRUT: Four children sell tissues in the middle of the road adjacent to the market in Sabra. “I hope you go to prison!” a truck driver shouts as the eldest proffers a pack of Kleenex.
“My mother is sick,” she tells The Daily Star, hugging a concrete barrier on the road to avoid a passing car.
While the girl and her coterie claim to have walked from their nearby residence in the penurious neighborhood of Sabra, many Syrian children scattered around the affluent areas of Beirut are far from their homes, some purposefully shuffled around by trafficking networks, the inner workings of which were revealed in part last week when the Internal Security Forces dismantled an alleged child trafficking ring in Ras Beirut.
On Feb. 13, The ISF arrested members of the alleged ring following a three-day stakeout at the corniche, undertaken after patrol officers grew suspicious of four young Syrian girls, aged 15, 10, 9 and 4, selling Kleenex and chewing gum to passing motorists.
The sight of children selling the goods is not uncommon, but what struck the officers was the orderly manner by which they arrived and were picked up.
The officers documented that a woman, later identified as Lebanese, would drop off the four children in the morning and pick them up during the evening. That regularity was the first step in identifying the ring as an organized trafficking enterprise.
The implicated Lebanese woman, identified as M.Z., or “operations manager,” as Col. Elias Asmar, head of the ISF’s moral protection department calls her, was arrested, as were the parents of the four girls, W.K., M.H. and H.H.
The suspects, who did not confess during the interrogation, have been accused of running a child trafficking ring. The child victims, including three siblings, were referred to House of Hope orphanage in the Baabda town of Kahaleh, as per prosecutor Rajaa Harmoush’s request.
“We and the prosecutor deem that the girls were exploited by their parents and the Lebanese manager, who were benefitting from the girls’ work on the streets,” Asmar said. “And this is an aspect of human trafficking, as explicitly stated by our law. It is mentioned in Article 586/1 of the penal code.”
The dismantling of the ring is a drop in the ocean, however, Asmar said. Child trafficking is on the rise due to the conflict in Syria and Lebanon’s worsening security situation. The majority of cases involve Syrian refugees.
“The major affected population is Syrian, but you can’t say that other nationalities aren’t vulnerable. Every child coming from bad economic conditions and armed conflict is a potential victim of trafficking,” Asmar added.
He said that the arrests were a step in the right direction toward implementing the 2011 anti-trafficking law, but that finding shelter options for victims continued to be a challenge.
“There is not enough space in shelters,” Asmar said. “In this case, the kids were referred to a social center in Kahaleh but in other cases, we face a lot of difficulty in finding a place to keep the kids.”
Marcelle Aoun, the president of UPEL – a child protection group – has long been an outspoken critic of state’s lack of investment in shelter programs. She said the Justice Ministry, which administers her program for juvenile delinquents and victims of abuse, went six months without paying its employees.
“The problem is that there is no budget for [shelters and rehabilitation programs],” she said.
Even House of Hope, which received the four Syrian girls, said they were dependent on private donations to keep their programs running. Noah George, the assistant director, said the government funding they received was just enough to cover staff salaries, “and we’re understaffed.” The shelter, which often receives severe abuse cases, is not able to hire a full-time psychologist.
The lack of proper identification, especially for victims of trafficking, is one factor that excludes them from rehabilitation programs, George said.
“They are doing fine,” he said of the young Syrian girls who arrived last week. “They have issues, but they are coming out more and more the longer they stay.”
Child trafficking victims are typically mistrustful at first, George said. “It takes them a long time to trust people, and they always want to run away.”
Asmar remarked that the girls were very mature for their age. “Surely, it’s because of their experience on the streets.”
If indicted, the parents could face 10 to 15 years of jail time and be fined up to 600 times Lebanon’s minimum wage, which is about $450.
When asked whether the sentence should take the socioeconomic hardships faced by the parents into account, Asmar said the law was fair.
“Traffickers think about easy money and how to diminish costs,” Asmar said. “They don’t have to put in any effort if they invest in their children.”
In Sabra, Syrian refugees live in cramped quarters off dank alleyways in the underdeveloped neighborhood. The parents arrested last week lived here and had arrived to Lebanon a mere month before.
Parents have a hand in allowing their children to beg, said Mahmoud M. Abbas, a social worker with Children and Youth Center in Beirut’s Shatila camp.
“The parents ... they are partnered with these gangs,” he said.
Feryal Ahmad al-Ahmad, a Palestinian woman who lives in the area, said she knew who managed a group of child beggars.
“His name is Fouad, he lives in the Naameh area and he’s Lebanese,” she added.
Georges Talamas, a project manager at the NGO Basmeh and Zeitooneh estimates that one child can make up to $300 month begging on the streets.
“Those families won’t accept a food basket and a mattress,” Talamas said.
According to Ahmad, Fouad fled when he learned the authorities had identified him.
Traffickers “come in a van, daily,” she said.
“They are distributed in the area, and they change shifts.”
“They get out from the van at Rehab, go to the Al-Sahel Hospital [area] and sit on the edge of the road,” Ahmad said.