The customer was a prince from the Gulf – obviously rich and obviously drunk. But here in Lebanon, the customer is king, as this man is at the company he rents cars and drivers from every time he comes to town. The taxi drivers, who all know him well, provide him everything he wants while he’s here, including alcohol and prostitutes.
But that night he seemed to be in the mood for something else. So he asked the driver for a virgin girl he could “have fun with” for the night in exchange for $50,000. The driver came back an hour later with his 17-year-old daughter.
Nabil, a 28-year-old driver with the company, said he is shocked by what happened. He refused to give any names, not even his own real name, as he doesn’t want to get in trouble. Though he says that he is used to delivering prostitutes to his rich customers and that all his coworkers do the same for a small commission, he is still shaken by this particular incident.
Nabil is only one of the taxi drivers, bartenders and hotel receptionists in Beirut who see human trafficking occur year round, but especially in the summer with the influx of sex tourists from the Gulf. According to women’s rights activists and sources in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, prostitution and human trafficking are booming in Lebanon, but they are difficult to tackle because of the lack of concrete information or a law dealing with the issue.
According to police sources who spoke to NOW Lebanon on condition of anonymity, the taxi driver who sold his daughter got a pretty good deal. “Virgin girls are sold starting from $25,000. If the girl is not a virgin the price can go as low as $500 a night, but it can also go up to $10,000,” a police officer said. “[Often] the customer sees a Lebanese woman somewhere and sends someone to offer her up to $10,000 for a night or two. Some accept, some don’t. But many do accept. Who would turn down such an amount of money? You can get a car with that kind of money.”
According to Nabil, when the taxi driver picked up his daughter in the morning, the prince paid him $5,000 extra “for the damages.” The teenager was taken to the hospital and treated for internal bleeding. The taxi driver took his daughter and disappeared without a trace after the incident. “I just hope she will be able to live with it,” Nabil said.
An officer in the ISF told NOW Lebanon that “if a victim comes to us to report such a story, we will definitely investigate it.” But, he noted, abuse victims don’t usually speak up.
Many trafficking victims end up living silently their entire lives with the trauma and the shame of what happened. According to Ghada Jabbour, an activist at the Kafa women’s rights organization, the subject is too taboo to warrant open discussion in Lebanon. “We only hear anecdotes from witnesses. We did start a study on prostitution in Lebanon, but it is a very difficult job; we’re still struggling with it,” Jabbour said.
Not only are victims afraid of being judged by the community, but there is no law on trafficking and prostitution. Instead sex crimes are prosecuted under the penal code, which is insufficient, activists say.
“The Lebanese penal code criminalizes the women and the pimps, not the clients. We arrest them, we send them to the prosecutor, but if three days after they are released by a judge, all is in vain,” the ISF officer complained. The officer says he solved seven trafficking cases himself, but that what happened after the arrests was out of his hands. “It’s not necessarily corruption. The judges are not used to seeing cases like this; they don’t know the terminology, they don’t understand the crime. So they release them,” he said.
The ISF’s Vice Department managed to rescue a few months ago two Russian ballerinas who were brought to Lebanon by a trafficking ring and who managed to escape and reach their embassy. They were sent back to their country, and the traffickers were arrested. “But they are probably out by now,” the ISF officer said.
Usually, tourists go to cabarets, where foreign women and girls are brought to work as “artists” but are rented out for sex. According to the police, Lebanese women and girls in the sex trade work more discretely in hotels in central Beirut, but for higher fees. They either have deals with the receptionists or taxi drivers, or they pick up their clients in bars and pubs.
“We closed down a few hotels because of this practice,” the ISF officer said. “Some are still closed. We arrested many girls this way. But, unfortunately, they are out the next day and the clients get away with it.”
According to Jabbour, Lebanon needs a human trafficking law, but things are moving very slowly. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime came up with a draft, but Jabbour says women’s rights organizations never saw it before it was submitted to the government. Sources in the ISF Vice Department say they weren’t consulted either, that the law is very weak and that it won’t change much. But they say they are optimistic that they will at least have an actual law to amend in the future.