Refugees’ dangerous roads to safety – The journey for women from Syria

Personal safety and protection: what do these mean for women? And specifically what do they mean for asylum seeking and refugee women?

Gender-based violence and sexual violence are issues affecting women all over the world, however in times of conflict, women and children are disproportionately affected by this violence.
Since 2011 the Syrian civil war has forced millions of people to flee from the country and seek safety in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.
The most vulnerable victims of the conflict are almost always women and children and in this crisis they represent the majority of the refugees.

 UNHCR_facts and figuresThe UNHCR reports that women and children make up three quarters of the total Syrian refugee population.

From the native country to the host one, women experience difficulties not only as women, but also as refugees: being a female refugee exposes women to extra risks along their path and in the place they temporarily find shelter.

Prior to flight, as conflict emerges, family and community structures are greatly shaken and gender roles are changed. Women are more subject to violence during this time because of frustration and worries within the family structure, often causing numerous episodes of domestic violence. Additionally, during an internal crisis women may be left completely alone or with the responsibility to take over non-traditional roles, such as the financial breadwinner, for which women are seldom prepared. In traditionally male dominated societies women without male protection can become targets of violence.

These conditions put refugees in serious danger even before the decision to escape. Police, the military and local individuals will often allow unaccompanied women to flee but may demand sexual favours in return. For those lucky enough to escape, the potential to become the victim of violence continues as the journey across domestic and international borders exposes these women to higher risks of violence.refugees

During their escape, pirates, bandits, smugglers, border guards, individuals or other refugees may demand sexual services or, commit harassment and rapes against women and children especially when these women are not accompanied by male protection. Along the migration route women and girls are often unaware of their rights and the services available to them. Many of them travel without knowing where they are or which cities they should cross. This lack of information makes women vulnerable to acts of violence.

Similar problems are experienced in refugee camps, where local people and persons in authority, such as military, police and international refugee workers, may take advantage of refugees’ weak and delicate situations. Exploitation and extortion are not sporadic episodes in this context and the rate of violence increases significantly in the shelters where specific services for women are not provided.

refugees2This exposure to violence increases the likelihood that young girls will be married off to ensure safety and male protection. Alarmingly a trend is emerging that sees the increase of child marriages within refugee camps. In a UNHCR survey conducted in Syrian refugee camps within Turkey show that the average age for refugee girls to marry is 13-20 indicating that the majority of these marriages are taking place before the girl is reaching adulthood. NGOs like CARE have also reported an increase in the number of child marriages in refugee camps. The earlier girls are married the less likely they are to complete their education and the more likely they are to have early pregnancies and to endure a life of poverty.

Many refugee settlements are overcrowded with minimal privacy and compromised safety, particularly those located in abandoned buildings. There is an absence not only of prevention and support services to sexual and gender-based violence, but also of basic needs: no separate distribution for food, or distinct wash facilities, or different accommodation for specific groups, including single women, pregnant women, female-headed households, and for families. All of these factors create an environment ripe for physical and sexual violence to take place.

Tracking the numbers of gender based violence victims is always difficult, as many victims do not report the crime to authorities. The Euro Mediterranean Human Rights Network estimates that more than 6000 Syrian women have been victims of sexual assault and rape since the crisis began.

What can States do to guarantee more protection?

On 16-17 May, world leaders from governments, international organizations, civil society and business gathered in Istanbul ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit. They agreed on key commitments to restore the safety, dignity and rights of people in crisis and discussed how to empower and protect women and girl refugees and migrants.

  •  Governments should ensure minimal safety standards, clinical care locations, and provide experts to help women victims of violence on both a psychological and physical level.
  • Establish confidential and trusted mechanisms to track and report incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse during aid delivery, and inform asylum seeking women and girls about the existence of such mechanisms.
  • Allow civil organizations to work and help refugees in transit areas.
  • At the refugee camps provide women simple access to register, explain refugees’ rights and specific services for them.
  • Guarantee programs tailored to the specific risks and needs of adolescent girls should be expanded across the regional response. This requires multidisciplinary programs ensuring safe spaces, age appropriate services and life-skills opportunities for adolescent girls.
  • Offer tracking mechanisms and familiar reunification, especially to unaccompanied women and girls.
  • Monitor those working in camps to ensure there is no abuse of power by agencies and by those employed within camps.Onar doesn’t work directly with the target group of refugees.  Other NGOs in Istanbul are doing their best to make an impact on this numbers like Hayata Destek, Small Project Istanbul, Kadav and others. We thank them a lot for their work. 

    Article by Stefania Arru