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The suffering of refugee women is multifold.. Cyber extortion in Lebanon

The suffering of refugee women is multifold.. Cyber extortion in Lebanon

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Life Women’s Rights Marginalized Groups

Tuesday 1 November 202204:23 pm
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معاناة اللاجئات الهشّات أكبر... ضحايا الابتزاز الإلكتروني في لبنان

Sarah*, a 13-year-old Syrian refugee child who is still in school, had a traumatic experience with cyber extortion earlier this year. She kept her story secret. Her friend told us what had happened to her when we were looking for victims of cyber extortion (or electronic blackmail).

About a year ago, she was in a relationship with a classmate a few months older than her, which quickly developed into intimate conversations and exchanging nude photos on a social media app.

"His jealousy led him to threaten and blackmail me with publishing my photos. I was afraid of my father. If he knew, he might kill me... I swear I’ll never do that again," Sara says, adding that her fear of her father was greater than her fear of a scandal.

The girl sought refuge in an NGO active in the Syrian refugee camps in Akkar where she resides. The organization provided her with a female psychiatrist, and her conversation with the therapist helped solve the problem. She was able to reach the blackmailer and his family and stop his threats to the girl.

Sarah is not the first victim of cyber blackmail, nor will she be the last. There are older female refugees who have went through this experience, but it led to their suicide.

Underage girls are the weakest link

From time to time, the Internal Security Forces publish news of arrests of people who have extorted girls or boys, after the victim or her guardians had filed a report to the Cyber Crimes Unit to pursue the blackmailer, as part of its follow-up to the crimes of cyber extortion.

Crimes of cyber extortion and blackmail are a common and widespread issue in Lebanon, especially in recent times. Its first and foremost 'hunting ground' is social media, where females are victims of a much higher percentage than males. What makes matters worse is that these crimes are increasing, involving boys and girls as victims, shackled by fear, confusion, and isolation, especially in the absence of proper oversight.

The stories of cyber blackmail are real and shocking and occur on a daily basis. Hundreds of victims are threatened and intimidated by the threat of publishing their private information, or by publishing photos and videos of them, in exchange for paying huge sums of money, or having non-consensual sexual relations. At a time when social media has become the most prominent feature of the era, and a platform for interaction between people, the virtual space has become an arena that allows some individuals to use hidden weapons to practice their misconduct, vent their repressions and harm, humiliate, and embarrass others behind the mask of "anonymity".

According to the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces, a closer examination into the statistics of complaints of sexual extortion received electronically in 2019 and 2020 revealed a significant and dangerous increase in the number of complaints over cases of threats and extortion of minors. 11 complaints (81.81% of which affected minors) were recorded in 2019, while 94 (80.08 of them are minors) were recorded in 2020, marking an increase of 754%. Usually, security forces are able to successfully pursue the blackmailers.

Because society sees women as the weakest link, they suffer the largest share of the harm, which is usually directed at everything that might affect their "honor", their will, and even their appearance. So what if it was refugee women, the most marginalized group in Lebanon, who are the ones exposed to this harm?

Blackmail... Then suicide

Salma*, a 22-year-old Palestinian refugee living in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, was in a romantic relationship that lasted about three years with a man several years older than her. Their conversations became intimate and soon led to them exchanging photos. This resulted in her being blackmailed through the threat of publishing her photos and their conversations if she did not agree to have a sexual relationship with him. After a few months of her suffering from the blackmail, she committed suicide.

As for Heba*, a 17-year-old Palestinian refugee living in a Palestinian camp, and still in the eleventh grade, she is also a victim of cyber extortion, but this time the perpetrator only wanted money. She recounts how she communicated on Facebook with someone who, through talking to her and his play on words, was able to obtain private photos from her. A year ago, he began blackmailing her, asking for two thousand US dollars and threatening to publish her photos if she did not give him the money.

Cyber extortion revolves mostly around issues of honor. Many of its victims do not come forward to file a complaint, for fear of scandal or societal blame, preferring to submit to the extortion, and bury their secret with them

But Heba had the awareness to immediately tell her family what had happened, not caring about what might happen with her parents and two brothers finding out. They were able to eventually find out the identity of the blackmailer and inform the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces - the Cyber Crime Unit, so that the competent authorities could do their job by arresting him.

A different approach

Mona*, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee who left school after coming to Lebanon, has been subjected to more than one attempt of harassment and extortion in the virtual world, one of which was the theft of her personal phone and the blackmailer obtaining information and photos of her.

She affirms that she does not know any means of protection against harassment and extortion, not even how to report cyber violence. She was not even aware that the security forces are capable of protecting her and arresting the abuser wherever he may be on Lebanese territory.

Ahmad*, a 32-year-old Palestinian who works as a taxi driver, was surprised by his 12-year-old daughter telling him that someone had spoken to her through the chat rooms of an electronic game, asking her to take pictures of herself without any clothes, and to send him the pictures in exchange for money that she could use to increase her points and credits in the game, thus enabling her to compete better in its competition stages. Ahmad rushed to inform the authorities to arrest and refer him to the concerned authorities.

But what's hidden is even greater. Cyber extortion revolves mostly around issues of honor. Many of its victims do not come forward to file a complaint, for fear of scandal or societal blame, preferring to submit to the extortion, and bury their secret with them

Cyber extortion

In many cases of threat and extortion, the victim has no hand in it, the most dangerous of which is when the phone is left in shops for repair, as some shop owners or employees steal data and personal photos to blackmail the owner of the phone.

Lebanon's Internal Security Forces define cyber extortion like "online blackmail and sextortion" as "crimes in which the victims are being threatened by a criminal through posting private pictures and videos to them with the aim of obtaining money, or pushing the victim to carry out illegitimate activities."

Unlike a regular harasser who can be seen, confronted, or even avoided, a cyber harasser breaches the walls of the home and invades a woman's privacy in a way that she would not be able to find any refuge to take shelter in, as the writer Zumurrud Tawil Estephan stated in an article she wrote.

According to the same article, in many cases, the online harasser remains anonymous and hides behind the mask of pseudonyms and impersonated identities, which frees him from social restrictions and moral standards. It also makes him bolder or more reckless when it comes to pursuing a woman whose picture he had happened upon on social media sites. He is rarely personally acquainted with the victim, and the issue may even turn to cyber stalking.

Cyber extortion crimes are one of the common and widespread issues in Lebanon, especially in recent times, and its first and foremost 'hunting ground' is social media, where females are victims of a much higher percentage than males

In the context of "electronic harassment", cyber bullying and intimidation fall into one or more categories: harassment and stalking, which entails sending repeated threats or harmful messages through messaging platforms or via phone calls; defamation and deception, that is, involving a person in instant messaging and deceiving him or her into revealing personal and sensitive information; and defamation, by sending or spreading gossip or rumors about someone to damage their reputation or friendships, or harm their social standing.

Minors and their conditions

Doctor in clinical psychology Hanan Matar distinguishes between a minor and an adult, and says that adults are more aware and conscious of their actions and know where to resort to in case they are subjected to digital blackmail, such as the relevant security services or the competent judiciary, very much unlike minors.

The psychologist points out that the psychological effects on minors who are subjected to blackmail or threats, are of two types: short-term and long-term. In the short-term effects, the minor’s school grades begin to decline. She becomes isolated from her friends, colleagues, and even her family. She becomes increasingly absent from family meetings, and always feels anxious and ashamed. There are effects that impact one's hours of sleep and food intake, where some victims resort to either overeating or not eating at all, which causes many diseases. The minor also experiences abdomenal pain and headaches for reasons she does not know of, and that are unrelated to common diseases and health problems, leading up to the appearance of signs of early depression which develops with long-term negative effects, and reaches the point of addiction whether to alcohol or drugs, or even suicide. This also makes it difficult for her to enter into any relationship, whether a romantic one or a friendship, especially since she had lost trust in the people surrounding her.

Matar believes that minors usually resort to communicating with strangers through social networking sites, especially when they feel they trust them, as a result of certain shortcomings at home or family problems that make them feel lonely. Even the blackmailer, who is often an adult, plays on the victims’ weakness. He makes them feel that he is also wronged and understands their situation, earning their trust and luring them into exchanging private photos and personal information.

How to protect potential victims?

Testing out spam calls and unwanted messages can be very difficult emotionally, so it is important for every girl to know that they can protect themselves from such threats.

Matar says every girl should try to document the cyber harassment she is being subjected to as much as possible, no matter how insignificant it may be to her. Documentation may include collecting information, saving messages and threatening material, taking screenshots, recording calls, and tracking the times, places, and people involved in the act.

If it is a phone call, the girl should calmly tell the person making the threat to stop their harassing behavior, then end the call and end all kinds of interaction with him. If it's a post or text message, she should not reply, and identify the number or numbers the harasser is using to call, and record them.

Hayat Mirshad, executive director of Fe-male, a Lebanese feminist organization, says that the high rates of cyber violence and electronic extortion against women and girls, and the lack of adequate mechanisms to confront it, have normalized the phenomenon and turned it into a daily act practiced by abusers, all on the basis of: "It's normal to be harassed online."

Mirshad adds that a large number of women and girls do not have the tools to confront their cyber abusers, especially since they already suffer from a high rate of domestic violence that is practiced against them, as well as patriarchal societal ideas and a culture based on blaming women and discriminating against them, and from living and economic pressures due to the difficult economic conditions in the country. In addition to all this, the Covid pandemic and its subsequent home quarantine measures have confined women and girls to one space with their abusers, both offline and online.

"Screens Do Not Protect"

Based on this reality, which puts many under the mercy of electronic violence in all its kinds, many organizations are launching awareness campaigns. One such campaign was launched by Fe-male under the title "Screens Do Not Protect" in May 2020, to emphasize that women and girls in Lebanon and in the Arab region have the right to access and use the internet freely and safely without being subjected to violence, bullying, or extortion, according to Mirshad.

The executive director of Fe-male pointed out that the campaign aims to inform women and girls of their right to use the internet but at the same time inform them of all the threats and challenges associated with this usage, and arm them with some technologies for safe use of the internet, especially social media sites. The campaign also aims to inform girls and women that the aggressor cannot escape and get away with his crime, even if the assault was carried out on social media. They can hold him accountable as well as expose and report him.

Previously, complaints were referred to the police station in the locality where the victim lives, but when the office of the Cyber Crimes Unit was opened, they began to be directly transferred to it from the Public Prosecution.

There are many associations that are concerned with psychologically assisting girls, especially in refugee camps, whether Palestinian or Syrian, including: the CBRA Association, the Developmental Action Without Borders (NABA'A) association, the National Institution of Social Care and Vocational Training - Beit Atfal Assumoud, Save the Children association, and the Najdeh (Social Rescue) association. These organizations provide services for women's empowerment, as well as counseling and psychological support clinics.

It is necessary to report any cyber violence or extortion that women and girls may be subjected to via the landline of the Cyber Crimes Unit in the judicial police unit: 01293293, or through the report service on the website of the General Directorate of Internal Security Forces, or via mail on its Facebook page.

*Pseudonym for the purpose of protecting the privacy of the victim.

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