This is a three-part series on the cycles of sexual violence experienced by refugee women, especially from Syria – from forced labor and “sex slavery” inside their own country, to years of harassment and destitution in countries neighboring Syria and, even worse, falling prey to sex trafficking while in transition to Europe.
Part One of the story was published here.
When asked about their pressing concerns amid the conflict that has swathed Syria, many refugee women mention the possibility of being “attacked” – an implicit reference to sexual violence – as a driving factor. Trying to flee continued fighting, or at the very least sending the most vulnerable members of the household – women, children and the elderly – to safety has been a priority for many families.
Fatima is among the tens of thousands of Syrian women living in Lebanon who lost their husbands and are on their own. She fled with her two adolescent daughters, leaving behind the body of her husband “without a chance for a proper burial,” she says. Despite being a registered refugee, she lives in a slum community outside Tripoli – Lebanon’s second largest city, in the north of the country – facing a dismal future and currently without a means of income. Nearly four years after leaving home, making sure her children are properly nourished remains her pressing concern.
“I fear for their safety here, too. They have seen and experienced things no one their age should have,” she says, stopping short of describing the details. When asked if any of them were ever threatened or experienced violence on either side of the border, her response is curt.
“Who among the women has not experienced violence? This is the question that you should be asking,” she points out.
According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the threat and occurrence of sexual violence were leading reasons for the flight of female civilians from Syria during the first years of conflict, when the refugees in Lebanon were 75 percent women and children. Although the demographics have shifted in recent years, the women who have been living on the assumedly safer side of the border, in Lebanon, have not been protected or sufficiently helped to make ends meet.
The IRC, which set up an office in the Lebanese capital Beirut in 2012 specifically to help Syrian refugees, has corroborated the prevalence of sexual violence both as a perceived threat and a grim reality, through multiple yearly assessments conducted among refugees in Lebanon.
According to International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates, a refugee woman who manages to find a job – illegal in Lebanon and extremely limited in Turkey – earns an average of 248,000 Lebanese pounds ($163) per month, lower than a Syrian man’s wage and significantly below the minimum wage in Lebanon.
“Most women are facing economic difficulties and men think they can take advantage of this,” says Maya Haddad, a social worker with the Lebanese NGO Kafa, which assists women in the Bekaa Valley. As Haddad explains, monitoring such cases is problematic given that “sexual harassment is still a big taboo that is swept under the carpet.”
Employers exploit the situation to their advantage. Women who do not live with their husbands are verbally and physically threatened or, in more extreme cases, offered financial assistance in exchange for sex.
“My daughter worked in a store,” says Asma, a Palestinian refugee from Syria interviewed by Amnesty International. “The manager harassed her and touched her. That is why I don’t let my daughters work now.”
In a report titled “I Want a Safe Place,” Amnesty interviewed Syrian and Palestinian refugee women from Syria in Lebanon, a vast majority of whom had “invalid residence permits.” Being illegal made them susceptible to harassment and arrests by law enforcement officials, subject to even worse working conditions due to lack of rights and extortion in various forms.
The hardships associated with this life and with looking for work were compounded in May 2015 when the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) suspended the registration of Syrian refugees, leaving those who arrived after that month with no financial assistance.
Police officers, government office employees in charge of renewing residence permits, neighbors, bus and taxi drivers and complete strangers in the street – all are potential threats these women face every day. Because some women have experienced arbitrary detention in their home country, they are scared to report episodes of violence to the authorities. They often view the police as a source of threat rather than protection.
As a result of economic hardship, slavery of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is a fast- growing concern. Early in April 2016 Lebanese internal security forces rescued 75 women who had been held against their will and forced into sexual slavery. Most of the victims were Syrian, some of them under 18 years of age.
The risk of trafficking starts within Syria, where there are 7.6 million internally displaced people. “Syria is a source and destination country for men, women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking,” according the U.S. state department. There are many forms of economic servitude and sexual slavery, from the Islamic State group’s use of Syrian and Yezidi women and girls as volunteer “wives” to the strategic targeting of women and children as lucrative hostages by armed bands such as Ahrar al-Sham, a group formed by former Islamist prisoners and Iraqi war veterans, and the al Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.
Among the 4 million who have escaped the country, the vast majority live in the urban centers of cities such as Beirut and Istanbul, vulnerable to many risks. According to the International Rescue Committee, more than 60 percent of refugees live in cities. The Women’s Refugee Commission issued a detailed report entitled “Mean Streets,” based on interviews with refugee women in Quito, Kampala, Beirut and Delhi, and concluding that “shelter and livelihoods are the two greatest areas of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) vulnerability for urban refugees.”
The commission also called on UNHCR to change its 2009 urban policy by expanding its mandate directly to engage with and help urban female refugees, especially when they have not registered.
In Turkey, with an estimated 2.7 million Syrian refugees, the women outnumber the men. In Istanbul, home to about half a million refugees, less than 1 percent have work permits. Within this highly restrictive environment, women struggle even more, and are often relegated to the lowest-paying jobs in factories and textile mills.
While Turkey was a transit and destination country for sex trafficking well before the Syrian conflict, recent years have seen Syrian parents shelling out thousands as “bride prices” to men who promise that their daughters will be better off in Turkey than in the dire conditions prevalent inside war-ravaged Syria.
The conditions in countries surrounding Syria coupled with the lure of a better and safer life in Europe convince many lone refugee women to fork out their meager savings to pay for clandestine voyages. But the risks of violence and sex trafficking shadow them to the other side of the Mediterranean into Europe.
Part 3 of the story will explore the risks that female refugees face upon entering Europe.