GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Amima and Fatima Jebari are Syrian sisters who fled last year to the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, after the Free Syrian Army entered their village in the north, they said, and violence ensued between the rebel group and the government forces of Bashar al-Assad in the continuing civil war.
The women, who are in their 40s, paid the equivalent of about $150 to people smugglers to bring them across the border to Turkey. Their arrival, however, did not offer much relief from violence as refugees and the countries in the region hosting them remains the most compelling humanitarian challenge facing the world today.
Given Turkey’s long border with Syria, its history of active trade and its initial hospitable policy, it has taken in the most Syrian refugees in the world, an estimated 2.7 million people, according to the United Nations, many of them widows and children. The refugees first began arriving on April 29, 2011, soon after the Syrian government began to viciously attack protestors demonstrating for an Arab Spring revolution. Turkey imposed much stricter rules on Syrians trying to enter and leave the country as the influx became enormous.
“We are suffering,” said Amima Jebari in an interview here in February. “Syrian women in Turkey are being harassed by men of all ages. I am 45 years old and am constantly harassed, age doesn’t matter.”
Basic transactions can turn sexual. “We have been told that if we want to work, we have to do sexual favors for them,” said Fatima Jebari, also in an interview. “We have been forced to leave many jobs because of this problem.” Male landlords, they said, offer to reduce rent in return for sexual favors.
As the next round of UN-led peace talks is taken up in Geneva this month between the Syria High Negotiations Committee, representing the opposition, and the Syrian government, and a cessation of hostilities holds in parts of the country, refugees may have reason to hope that they can return home soon.
Until then, their lives feel stuck on hold. In fact, the situation for Syrian refugees in Turkey could grow more unpredictable and unstable, now that the European Union is carrying out a controversial agreement with Turkey to stop the continuing flow of refugees and migrants from crossing the seas to enter Greece illegally.
Instances of sexual harassment and other abuses against female Syrian refugees taking temporary shelter in Turkey — either in formal camps or elsewhere — will surely not go away.
A detailed report by a human-rights advocacy group, the Association for Human Rights and Solidarity With the Oppressed, found that sexual harassment is a serious problem for Syrian women in Turkey, particularly those living outside refugee camps. In situations where women lack resources to sustain themselves and their families, the report said they face the risk of becoming victims of human trafficking gangs; early, polygamous or temporary imam marriages; “survival sex” and exchange of sex for services — all happening amid a backdrop of an increasingly discontented host population.
The report said that the rate of Syrian women’s employment was low in Turkey, with language problems and other discriminating and legal factors making it difficult for these women to find legitimate jobs. Those who do work generally become cleaning women, babysitters or get hired in agriculture, factories or service sectors.
“I have heard Turkish men praying that the war will never end so they continue to have a supply of vulnerable women,” Amima Jebari, one of the sisters interview for this article, said, speaking in a dimly lighted room in a distribution center for refugees here in Gaziantep.
The conditions for some Syrian refugee women in Turkey is somewhat similar in Lebanon, which, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, hosts approximately 1.2 million refugees from Syria. A recent Amnesty International report described the sexual harassment and exploitation that female Syrian refugees are subjected to in Lebanon, with women saying that Lebanese men offer them money or help in exchange for sex, taking advantage of their vulnerability.
Others said they had been threatened, including with weapons; almost all the women interviewed for the report said that they were sexually harassed in public by neighbors, bus and taxi drivers, strangers in the street, sometimes even by police officers and government employees.
Sitting in a tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, an area accommodating female Syrian refugees, sexual harassment by local men is part of the women’s daily experience, women said in interviews. One woman in her late 40s, who gave only her first name, Maysaa, recounted a story of trying to take a bus that cost $1 and the bus driver saying he would take her as a passenger only if she slept with him.
“We take off our shoes and beat them when they ask us this,” Maysaa said.
Sexual harassment in Lebanon is not confined to refugees or migrants but can be experienced generally by women in at least the public sphere. A new harassment tracker posted on the Internet by three Lebanese women was inspired by a harassment map developed in Egypt in 2010.
When asked informally about instances of sexual harassment that the Syrian women had detailed in interviews, a group of Lebanese men in Beirut, the capital, shrugged.
“She’s in his land, he can do whatever he wants with her,” one man said.
Another man rationalized the harassment, saying, “Syrians did the same to Lebanese refugees during the Lebanese civil war.”
Sexual harassment and exploitation are repeatedly linked in reports to the economic hardships facing refugee women in Lebanon and Turkey. The ability to sustain themselves and their families is becoming increasingly limited for displaced Syrians as their stay extends beyond the imaginable and their savings dry up. Rents have skyrocketed in areas with the largest refugee concentration in these countries — urban centers and border towns — putting families trying to pay for their housing or buy food at the mercy of others in their temporary communities.
Refugee women in Lebanon, for example, who found jobs to support themselves reported being exploited by employers who paid excessively low wages or suggested to women that they offer sex for better pay.
Om Noor, a Syrian woman living in a refugee camp of roughly 200 people in the Bekaa Valley, fled to Lebanon after her husband abandoned her and her five daughters in the warzone back home. Refugee life has not proved easy for Om Noor and her daughters. As she said, “It’s when I arrived in Lebanon that I began to face the real difficulties.”
“Many women have tried to work in factories but have had to quit their jobs due to harassment from their bosses,” she continued. A local Lebanese antiharassment group, Say No to Violence, estimates that a fifth of Syrian women living in Lebanon are subject to economic, social and sexual exploitation by landlords, employers, community members and aid distributors.
Hussein Alawi, a Syrian refugee who began a small charity, You Are Not Alone, in Gaziantep, distributing aid to Syrian refugees, said child labor was high in the city. “It’s difficult for children to go to school here because they don’t speak Turkish. So they go to work,” he said.
All of the women who were interviewed for this article confirmed that they could not protect their daughters when sending them to school or to work. Syrian girls, said Lilian Salloum, a representative of the Danish Refugee Council, based in Beirut, are limited in their ability to go to school. Parents fear what might happen to their daughters attending school in the evenings, for example, which is generally when many Syrian children go to study, since the schools are full during the day with Lebanese citizens. The result is many Syrian girls stay home.
Survival sex by refugees is occurring both in Lebanon and Turkey, with women and young girls with few economic resources and little education being forced into prostitution. Prostitution is illegal in Lebanon but it is practiced in clubs and on the street.
Early marriage is also being used as a means of refugees’ escaping poverty and violence in Lebanon and Turkey. The International Rescue Committee reported that child marriages have become more common among Syrian refugees and that adolescent girls are being forced to marry at younger ages, are exposed to more violence in the home and outside it and find it difficult to obtain health care and an education.
Sitting in her tent inside the refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley, Om Noor said that with few financial choices, she sold her 15-year-old daughter into marriage. The couple divorced after a month when the husband became abusive. Om Noor’s daughter now dreams of becoming a photographer and a journalist.
“Men from the Gulf countries come to Syria to buy young girls,” said Amima Jebari, one of the two Syrian sisters interviewed for this article. “Women are being bought and sold into marriage, so that the buyer can legally have sex with the girls. They then dump them and leave them. Women are being sold like real estate.”
In a hidden office in the Bekaa Valley, women at Kafa (Enough), show up at the nonprofit center for the free psychological support and legal assistance available to clients of all nationalities experiencing violence in Lebanon.
“It is difficult for us to convince the Syrian woman that what she has experienced is violence and to push forward with taking legal action against a man who has abused her,” said a woman who works for Kafa and asked not to be named. “She’s afraid. She’s taught that she has to obey her husband. The culture is the most dangerous thing for a Syrian woman in war. She doesn’t have the right to defend herself.”
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Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, focusing on the militarization of child soldiers in Colombia. She has worked in the development sector in various countries, including the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Uganda. Higgs is the director of Project MonMa, an international nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She speaks English and Spanish.
Liga Rudzite is a Marie Curie fellow, working on her Ph.D. in economics at Tallinn University in Estonia, focusing on efficiency of international development cooperation programs in Central Asia. She has been involved in the community development sector in Latvia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia through designing educational and social programs and serving as a development policy adviser at Latvian Platform for Development Cooperation.