Syrian refugee camps and sex tourism

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan

Wars are violent events that do not recognise age, gender, ethnicity, religion or status. In war men, women and children are stripped of all notions of humanity and used as tools of psychological warfare, often through rape, prostitution and torture, writes Dr Ilyas Mohammed.

Those that escape the killing fields are either sent to camps, as was the case during the Second World War by the Germans, the Japanese and the Americans. Or they are forced to live in refugee camps, as was the case with the Palestinians and now for the Syrians.

In the words of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the inhabitants of both types of camps occupy the status of “bare life.” The inhabitants of these camps are deprived of human rights and open to torture, abuse and exploitation by internal and external actors. In most cases the victims of the violence and their families have no recourse to justice and have to endure psychological trauma which is passed on to future generations.

Over the last few years the plight of Syrian refugees has compelled many people to become “human rights conscious” and contribute to the humanitarian effort in various ways. Having said this, there is also another side, a darker side, which is the sexual harassment and exploitation of Syrian women in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

The sexual exploitation of women in wars not new and has been part of every war. Historically women have been considered as “war booty.” Shamefully in the modern age accompanied by its universal human rights women are still considered as war booty and subject to horrific violence and sexual exploitation. Women’s experience of war is given very little importance by international organisations and global powers, leaving the victims and their families to suffer in silence.

Exploitation of Syrian women

In the current Syrian war (like in previous wars) women are at the forefront of violence and exploitation. Many human rights organisations have published reports detailing the desperate situation of Syrian women refugees. A report published by Human Rights Watch in November 2013 stated that:

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“Women refugees from Syria are being sexually harassed by employers, landlords, and even faith-based aid distributors in Lebanon… Human Rights Watch interviewed a dozen women who described being groped, harassed, and pressured to have sex.”

The Syrian refugee camps have also given rise to what I call a “sex tourism industry,” which has resulted in agencies and middlemen popping up and acting as suppliers in the “supply and demand” chain. According to (perhaps politicised) media reports Muslim men from Europe and Muslim countries are fuelling the industry. Like these men in this exploitative trade, the suppliers see the women as a commodity, which can be bought and sold with little regard for the value of human life and the long-term psychological impact on the women and their families.

Are Syrian women refugees being exploited?
Are Syrian women refugees being exploited?

Dr Amira Mohamed, a counter-trafficking officer at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Amman provides an interesting insight to why Syrian women are considered as a desired commodity.

She says: “Syrian women are famed for their beauty and intelligence, making them desirable as wives. We hear lots of stories about brokers who take girls from the Syrian community and do matchmaking for marriage, for local men and men from abroad. And the marriage will be very short term, it could only last 24 hours, just to give a legal cover for sexual exploitation.”

Zainab, an elderly Syrian refugee and the mother of two daughters from the Zataari refugee camp in Jordan, gave another angle to understand this trade. She told international media that “men are coming here to take young girls as second wives. It is under the pretext of being charitable, of helping us.”

Other Syrian women have found their way to Jordanian nightclubs, where they work as prostitutes with some being under the age of 18. It is clear that these men only have one thing in mind but use Mut’ah (temporary marriage) and a perverted understanding of what charity means and entails in Islam. The use of Islamic texts in this way not only makes a mockery of the religion but also undermines the ethics and moral foundation of a faith that is followed buy 1.6 billion people.

Some Arab human rights have called upon Arab governments to take action to end the exploitation but it seems that these calls have fallen on death years.

Demand for Syrian women

Ziyad Hamad, from the charity Kitab al-Sunna that works with Syrian refugees in Jordan, acknowledges that “fake marriages” do take place.

He explains that: “Men travelled from Saudi Arabia and other countries to marry girls in the camps. They would pay rent for a home outside the camp and tell the women they would support them. Then they would have sex with them and divorce them one week later.”

Hamad’s charity also acts as a marriage bureau. In interviews with international media, Hamad said that “we initially issued a statement in newspapers and on websites saying we would not accept requests from Arab men to marry these girls. But that backfired; we became flooded with more requests! I then realised that many of these men have genuine intentions.”

Speaking to international media, an imam from the Zataari refugee camp says: “The men come into the camp and … they are just buying girls.” He says many of these men come from Jordan and the Gulf; most are seeking approval to wed a much younger woman. “When I was in Syria, I used to sign the marriage papers, but here … only when they are over 18. I am against the marriages in the camp, unless it is registered by the Jordanian government.”

Hamad’s charity has also claimed that it has married Syrian women to Muslim men from across the Arab world and from European countries, including Britain and France. He further adds that: “Sheikhs there called me and told me that I could not refuse to help with the marriages. They have good intentions and we only put them in contact with women if they abide by strict regulations that guarantee her well-being.”

In recent days human rights activists have reported that Facebook accounts have been set up to advertise Syrian refugees for marriage. Some of these Facebook pages use Quranic verses, giving them an Islamic tone and legitimacy.

The exploitation of Muslim women by Muslim men is taboo among most Muslims. Most Muslim-orientated media outlets, Muslim scholars and media pundits seem to stay away from discussing the exploitation of Syrian refugee women.

But remaining quiet about the issue sends the wrong message, not only to non-Muslims but also to Muslims. The silence suggests that Muslims are not concerned, or unwilling to speak about and tackle this emerging “sex industry.”

If the people involved in this supply and demand chain were “white and non-Muslims,” I am convinced that Muslims would be protesting. I also believe that Muslim scholars, Muslim-orientated media, and Muslim media pundits would be falling over themselves to condemn the exploitation of the women and highlighting the importance that Islam attaches to women.

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