SIDON, Lebanon – For the past three years, Mahmoud has lived in a basement with no natural light. The darkness, he says, reflects his whole life since he fled his home in Idlib, Syria, to Lebanon.
Mahmoud pays high rent for the barely inhabitable basement, yet his landlord has threatened to evict him if he refuses to work on the surrounding garden for free. When Mahmoud is able to find paid work, he earns $20 a day, picking olives in farms on the outskirts of Sidon in southern Lebanon.
“In Idlib I was an olive trader, but I came to Lebanon with nothing,” he says. “The war destroyed my business. I had debts in Syria that I couldn’t pay back because those who owed me money also couldn’t pay.”
During his three years in Lebanon, Mahmoud says he has received U.N.-provided food vouchers for a total of only four months. The rest of the time, he had to fend for himself. “All aid goes to families, not unmarried men without children. We don’t get treated as refugees, no one is looking out for us or asking what we need,” he says. “Unmarried men suffer more than families, who have each other.”
As a 34-year-old single man, Mahmoud does not fit into categories considered most vulnerable by humanitarian assistance programs. Yet his isolation makes him prone to exploitation and neglect, which in turn damages his psychological health.
A study of single, male refugees in Lebanon by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), published earlier this year, paints an alarming picture of men like Mahmoud struggling to access aid and vulnerable to exploitation.
Among the 500 men interviewed, 53 percent did not register with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), due to access restraints and misconceptions about their eligibility. While 19 percent were not able to reach one of the centers, at least 30 percent believed unmarried men are automatically ineligible to register and 8 percent believed they would not get aid even if they registered.
As a result, one-fifth of the men interviewed did not have enough food to eat and fewer than one in 10 had received assistance in the past 30 days.
“Single and unmarried men face a different array of risks compared to other refugee groups, but this doesn’t mean they are not vulnerable,” says Jocelyn Knight, IRC’s protection coordinator in Lebanon. “Humanitarian response should be needs-based – rather than category-based – in order to avoid excluding anyone who is in need of assistance.”
Exploitation at Work
Male refugees are more likely than other refugees to obtain work in Lebanon, but they remain vulnerable due to abuse in the workplace, including violence and the withholding of wages. Nearly half of the exploitation faced by Syrian men in Lebanon occurs in the workplace, according to the IRC survey.
The Lebanese government has made it difficult for Syrian refugees to enter the formal job market – a situation that has worsened since residency regulations in January 2015 obliged new refugees to have a Lebanese sponsor and those renewing their residency permit to pay a $200 fee.
Human Rights Watch says these sponsorship requirements expose Syrian refugees to abuse by Lebanese employers, while the introduction of a fee caused fewer refugees to register. Unregistered refugees then become invisible to the system and thus more vulnerable to abuse.
It is unclear if the recently formed government in Lebanon will change these restrictions on refugees, but the rhetoric of the new Lebanese president Michel Aoun calling for Syrians to return home does not appear to bode well.
Male refugees are often regarded as a security threat by their communities, rather than people in need of humanitarian aid, says IRC’s Jocelyn Knight. “The local community connects them to political issues that are far beyond their heads,” she said.
Unregistered Syrian men are more likely to avoid crossing checkpoints where the Lebanese military could detain them for being in the country illegally. They tend to avoid large gatherings, lest they attract attention and suspicion. But staying under the radar hampers their ability to build meaningful social support systems.
Some men delay marriage and having families while they cope with their situation. “I am not going to marry someone while living this life,” says 28-year-old Ahmed. “I want my wife to have a dignified life and I don’t have the money to do that now.”
“We tend to focus on the psychological well-being of families, but then we forget about providing assistance in contexts of isolation,” says Knight. The IRC is planning to fill this gap by training its staff in integrated psychosocial and legal services catering to men.
Suffering Sexual Violence in Silence
The absence of strong ties with their community and the lack of protection from local institutions also heightens male refugees’ risk of physical and sexual abuse from police, soldiers and employers.
But male refugees are often reluctant to report sexual violence, due to the stigma around homosexuality and traditional notions of ‘manhood’. A recent study by the Women’s Refugee Commission highlighted that not much is known about the occurrence of sexual violence among refugee men.
Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations often direct their gender-based violence services at women and lack trained staff who can approach the male population and gain their trust.
The stigma and abuse has borne a heavy psychological toll. At least 60 percent of those surveyed by the IRC reported “feeling less of a man” since becoming refugees in Lebanon.
Many nongovernmental organizations working with refugees in Lebanon admit the need for better understanding and research into the needs and experiences of male refugees.
“All they have built in the course of a lifetime does not matter anymore … They have lost everything in a second,” says Tarek Wheibi, a Beirut-based communications officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which staged a multimedia exhibition earlier this year on seven Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian men whose lives have been massively disrupted by conflict.
“We tend to look at men as if they are not affected by the situation but this is so far from reality,” Wheibi says.