BEIRUT (Reuters) - Women refugees who escaped Syria's conflict to find sanctuary in neighboring Lebanon have been sexually harassed by employers, landlords and an employee of a local aid group, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
The organization said it interviewed a dozen women who described being groped, harassed and pressured to have sex. They did not report the incidents to authorities for fear of reprisal by their abusers or because they might be arrested for not having valid papers, it said.
"Women who have fled death and destruction in Syria should find a safe haven, not sexual abuse, in Lebanon," said Liesl Gerntholtz, HRW's women's rights director.
The United Nations says 800,000 refugees have crossed into Lebanon to escape the 2-1/2 year conflict in Syria, though the total number is likely to be more than 1 million as many do not register with the U.N. refugee agency.
One refugee, 53-year-old Hala from Damascus, told HRW she suffered sexual harassment at nine of the 10 households where she had worked to support herself and her four children.
Male employers tried to touch her breasts, coerce her into sex, or procure her 16-year-old daughter for marriage, it said. She has stopped working and now depends on a church for aid.
Lebanon's Ministry of Social Affairs had dealt with one case in the last three months of sexual exploitation and harassment of several women refugees by an employee of a local faith-based aid organization, HRW said.
The aid worker was fired after the case was referred to local Sunni Muslim religious authorities, but the police were not informed.
HRW called on Lebanese authorities and the United Nations to improve protection for women refugees and help them report any violations. It also urged donor countries to increase funding for housing food and healthcare for the refugees to reduce their vulnerability to exploitation.
"Government and aid agencies need to open their eyes to the sexual harassment and exploitation of these vulnerable refugees and do everything in their power to stop it," Gerntholtz said.
(Reporting by Dominic Evans, editing by Elizabeth Piper)