BEIRUT: Human trafficking in Lebanon reached record levels last year, according to the head of the Internal Security Force’s Vice Squad, with the number of victims expected to rise further as the war in neighboring Syria continues.
“We’ve only just entered March,” Col. Elias Asmar told The Daily Star, “This year the numbers will go up, unfortunately.”
Before the start of the Syrian uprising the number of trafficking victims in Lebanon was modest. In 2010, the ISF recorded eight victims, but after the anti-trafficking law was implemented in 2013, the number rose to a record 27, with 24 traffickers convicted. This year, the ISF has already documented 12 victims, including women and children, all of whom were Syrian, with 14 alleged traffickers arrested and several still awaiting trial.
“I can say that due to the armed conflict in Syria the number of human trafficking rings is increasing and the number of victims are increasing,” Asmar said.
“This is normal, after a crisis, when the means to sustain a life are absent or insufficient, when a poor security and economic conditions leave a person vulnerable.
“And when you are vulnerable, you become a potential victim of human trafficking.”
“The soil is fertile for trafficking in Syria,” he added.
“In most of the cases we’ve investigated, the girls are brought in directly from Syria and are immediately forced to engage in prostitution. They don’t reside in camps,” he said, though he did not reject the idea that refugees were also at risk.
Last week, Asmar’s unit arrested three people in an apartment in New Rouda, Mount Lebanon, on charges of facilitating human trafficking.
“We got some information about a potential prostitution ring,” explained Asmar.
“So we monitored the apartment, we raided the apartment and arrested a Syrian woman and man.”
Initial reports said one of the suspects was Lebanese, but Asmar confirmed that both were Syrian nationals, identified as A.S. and H.S., aged 54 and 51, respectively. Both suspects are accused of facilitating prostitution and human trafficking. Police found “boxes” of condoms in the apartment, far too many for “individual use,” Asmar said.
The subsequent investigation provided key insights into the dynamics of how such networks operate and organize themselves.
Interrogating the two suspects, Asmar’s unit found that another Syrian, identified as M.D., 43, worked for the alleged ring as a recruiter and was tasked with bringing women from Syria under the false pretext of employment in domestic work.
Upon arrival, the women were typically forced into prostitution, their identity documents and return card that would permit re-entry into Syria confiscated by the traffickers.
“From the interrogation we learned that the recruiter [M.D.] was going to deliver two new women from Syria to the apartment,” said Asmar.
After receiving the case prosecutor’s approval to place the apartment under surveillance in anticipation of the recruiter’s arrival, the police promptly arrested him and also detained two Syrian women, who were identified as F.N., 26 and T.S., 48.
Further investigation revealed that both women were married to M.D.
“It’s a career for him,” said Asmar. “He marries them, brings them to Lebanon, goes back to Syria and tries to marry other women.”
“It happens like this in most cases,” he explained. “The recruiter is married to his intended victim, who is brought to Lebanon and forced into prostitution.”
T.S. was released on bail after being judged to be a victim of human trafficking, but F.N. was arrested on charges of prostitution.
“She has a criminal record, and it was clear that she knew very well what she came here to do,” Asmar said. According to Lebanon’s anti-trafficking law, lack of consent is an important marker of victimhood.
T.S. returned to Syria soon after she was released.
“We asked her if she needed to take refuge [in Lebanon] and she said she preferred to go back. She said she was ok, she was eating and living there fine,” said Asmar.
If convicted, those arrested could face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $48,000-$300,000, the equivalent of up to 600 times the minimum wage.
Due to the illicit nature of human trafficking networks, Asmar said his unit relies on many intelligence sources in the preliminary stages of identifying a potential ring.
“In our work as detectives we collect information from everywhere, sometimes from someone talking to his friend across the street, because we work undercover,” he said.
“Sometimes we get information from a different police department, from the informants we’ve recruited, from the radio.”
“Sometimes we get phone calls from neighbors who worry about suspicious activity in the apartment next door, so they ask us to check and see if everything is ok,” he added.
“Once we realize something is definitely not right, then we move.”