[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/09/07/art.charity.syria.workshop1.jpg caption="Representatives from the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the interior ministry and the UNHCR at the workshop last month."]
Syria is making significant steps to protect the most vulnerable of Iraqi refugees – women and children who are trafficked or forced into prostitution.
Last month, Syrian government officials met with representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) for a three-day workshop. The purpose of the meeting was to develop laws for the rights and duties of refugees, train local officials on refugee issues and address the growing problem of human trafficking.
An anti-trafficking bill is currently working its way through the Syrian parliament. If passed, it will be the first law of its kind in the Middle East. There are also a number of projects under way to protect women who are trafficked into the country for sex tourism or indentured servitude.
“Women at risk are a priority for the Damascus [UNHCR] office especially in view of their increasing vulnerability to exploitation under economic duress,” said Farah Dakhlallah, public information officer for the UNHCR in Syria.
The anti-trafficking law has been working its way through parliament for more than a year. It includes provisions for victim compensation, the establishment of rehabilitation centers, punishment for beneficiaries (clients), and the creation of an independent administration within the ministry of interior affairs for combating human trafficking crimes.
The Good Shepherd Convent, a Christian church in downtown Damascus run by four nuns, has several projects that support vulnerable woman and children, including a shelter with 22 beds for victims of sexual gender-based violence (SGBV). One of the new projects the government is supporting is an additional shelter specifically for trafficked women and girls. The project is being carried out by The Good Shepherd church, the International office of Immigration (IOM) and the Ministry of Interior.
Trafficking to Syria has garnered attention over the past few years because of reports that an alarming number of Iraqi women have fallen into prostitution and are being trafficked. It is impossible to track how many women are forced into prostitution but the organization Iraqi Women’s Will says approximately 50,000 women and girls have been victimized by this trade. In November, 2008 the UNHCR published a report outlining the various issues surrounding trafficking but did not quantify the issue. In June of this year they reported they’ve gained access to 70 SGBV cases in the Douma Prison in Syria and intervened with seven Iraqi girls in the Juvenile and Rehabilitation Center in Damascus.
“We have 210,000 Iraqis registered with the UNHCR but the Syrian government says there are 1.1 million Iraqis in Syria,” Dakhlallah said.
Syria doesn't require visas from Arab or African countries. " Syria is used for transport to the Gulf region. Gangs smuggle the girls across the border and through Syria," said a representative from the Good Shepherd church.
Without the law in place, if a woman is arrested in Syria for prostitution and doesn’t have a passport she will be charged with a crime and potentially deported, even if she was trafficked.
Minors are typically brought to juvenile detention centers. Local advocates and UNHCR workers have an agreement with the Syrian government to intervene in their cases. The Syrian 1956 labor law prohibits a stranger from working inside a Syrian home. Therefore, the concept of having domestic or sexual labor in the home is new to the Syrian legal system. The anti-trafficking law will change the government’s stance on both issues.
The economic situation for Iraqi refugees in Syria continues to worsen. Survival sex, prostitution and the sale of young women into Mutas or “pleasure marriages” have been on the rise.
A manager of a local NGO, who would not reveal her true identity because she fears retribution by both the traffickers and the government, said there are at least 5,000 trafficked girls in Syria. Like many of Iraq ’s neighbors, Syria has not signed the 1951 Convention on refugees. While Syria actually hosts more refugees than any other country and has opened its education and health care system to Iraqis, refugees are not legally allowed to work. This inability to find legal employment has led to the spike in the trafficking and prostitution of Iraqi women.
The manager said young women are kidnapped from Iraq or sold by family members to traffickers in Syria – who she says are mostly Iraqi. She adds that young women and girls who are virgins are sold for prices ranging from $4,000 – $10,000 U.S. dollars.
“The kids think the parents aren’t doing anything wrong. They think they are just going to go work cleaning someone’s house,” The manager said. The average age of a trafficked girl is approximately 13-years-old. Those sold into “pleasure marriages,” which can be dissolved in a matter of days, are then forced into prostitution.
The manager said the girls are kept in houses until drivers pick them up to take them to a “beneficiary” for the night.
“Usually the male member of a family, who is stronger, will prostitute female family members,” the manager said. Some women work at nightclubs dancing for money, while others are pimped and leave with men at the end of the night.
“A woman found two girls who fled Iraq to escape the violence,” a representative from The Good Shepherd Church said. She drafted fake marriage certificates and then planned to sell the girls. One of the young women overheard that she was to be sold and managed to escape. She is being protected by the Good Shepherd Church and hasn’t heard from her sister since her escape.
Syria cannot fight this issue alone. The manger of the local NGO said the government needs the support of the global community and international donors. “Because of the traumatic memories and negative stigma from being trafficked, the best option for young women is to be resettled in other countries,” she said. The UNHCR has a fast-track resettlement program for young women who have been trafficked.
“There was a young woman who was undressed and paraded in front of potential buyers,” the manager said. “She said she felt like a piece of merchandise and felt bad because they didn’t want to pay that much for her.” The psychological implications of sex and domestic slavery will be with these young women forever. To support the healing process the UNHCR along with the Syrian Red Crescent covers all psychological costs for women who’ve been trafficked or forced into prostitution.
Another positive step is a partnership that is developing between the UNHCR and the Syrian Women’s Union, which seeks to empower refugee women, especially women at risk.
Without a trafficking law, few pimps or traffickers are ever prosecuted. Many women are often prosecuted for prostitution, unless an aid organization intervenes on their behalf. If the new law is passed these women will be protected rather than prosecuted.
Editor’s Note: Charity Tooze is a freelance journalist currently working in Jordan . She was the executive producer of Rites of Passage, www.ritesofpassage.tv, a weekly television program by and for young women in the Bay Area. Last month she was in Syria , reporting on Iraqi Refugees as part of her master’s thesis.