September 12, 2007

On a dry, hot summer night in Jeremana, a run-down suburb of Damascus, clusters of pedestrians stroll down the dusty sidewalks. Most of the area residents are recently arrived Iraqi refugees. Abundant are the GMC trucks that bring them to Syria. Abundant, too, is a stream of cars with plates from neighboring Gulf states, some of which head down a side street towards a nightclub. Here, young prostitutes dance seductively under disco lights, hoping to attract business. Most young dancers are Iraqi refugees.

Child prostitution is an increasingly widespread phenomenon in Damascus. Out of economic desperation, Iraqi refugee women and girls are forced into these roles. Frequently, women who have lost their husbands or girls who have lost their fathers resort to prostitution to support their families. And sometimes families that have no other financial resources sell their daughters into the sex industry. It is a tragic and horrifying reality.

There are no official figures as to how many of the Iraqi refugees work as prostitutes. But Hana Ibrahim, founder of the Iraqi women’s group Women’s Will, told The Independent that she puts the figure at 50,000. No one knows how many of the prostitutes are children.

As child prostitution has increased, a number of Syrian nonprofit organizations have taken on the issue. One such group is the Association for Women’s Role Development, which works with other NGOs and intergovernmental organizations, such as Amnesty International and UNICEF. The organization helps girls under the age of 18 who have been charged with prostitution and imprisoned.

Together with the Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs, the Association provides healthcare services to the girls. They organize a weekly visit to a clinic where they are tested for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. The organization provides equal services to these girls regardless of their country of origin.

Additionally, the organization works to educate girls about their rights within their family. This education is vital for two reasons, says board member Youmn Abou Alhosn. "Sometimes the family of the girl does not know that she works in the sex industry," Mrs. Alhosn explains. "The family is still in Iraq, and the girl is sending back remittances. In this case, if her family finds out about her work, the girl might run the risk of an honor killing."

Conversely, some families sell their daughters into the sex trade without the girls knowing where they may be headed. Mrs. Alhosn says: "One girl was sold to an Iraqi woman in Syria by her father in Baghdad. He promised he’d be back in a week. It’s been five years, and he’s never returned."

The Syrian government is also currently working with the International Organization on Migration to draft legislation that would outlaw trafficking in migrants in Syria. According to the IOM, there have been reports of Iraqi women being trafficked into Syria and forced into sex work by Iraqi criminal networks. Since there are currently no laws on the books, Syrians have no means with which to prosecute traffickers. The legislation would also establish government agencies to investigate and prosecute traffickers. It would be the first law of its kind in the Middle East.

The increased trafficking and prostitution is yet another result of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. There are roughly 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, perhaps 2 million within the Middle East. UNHCR estimates that 50,000 Iraqi refugees arrive in Syria each month. This situation represents the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948 and is currently the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world. Syria has been accepting more refugees without visas than any other country in the world. On Sept. 11, however, the Syrian government announced new visa restrictions that will sharply decrease the numbers of Iraqis wishing to enter Syria.

The refugees arrive, fleeing generalized violence in Iraq and often specific threats on their lives. While refugees speak of attacks by the U.S. army, they also complain of sectarian violence. Although relieved to be away from the constant risks, Iraqis arrive in Damascus and face new problems, many of them setting the conditions for the child prostitution.

According to the UNHCR, Iraqis arrive with three to five months’ worth of savings. Due to a scarcity both of resources and of housing, they live in overcrowded neighborhoods outside of Damascus, such as Jeremana, often cramped seven to a room with few furnishings. Iraqis are not allowed to work in Syria, so when their funds run out, they are unable to support themselves. Consequently, many work illegally. Yet these jobs are difficult to come by and poorly paid, and workers frequently face discrimination. A report published by UNHCR and UNICEF last year states that an estimated 450,000 Iraqis in Syria "face aggravated difficulties" related to their "ambiguous legal and unsustainable income." As their savings dwindle, the situation of Iraqi refugees is bound to deteriorate further. Sybella Wilkes, the UNHCR Regional public information officer in Damascus, says that "64 percent of the people who have arrived here have run out of savings."

Bassam Alkadi, of the Syrian Women’s Observatory, agrees that the economic desperation is leading to an increase in prostitution. "The standard of living for Iraqis," he says "has gone downhill very quickly."

But Alkadi argues that the root cause of prostitution in Syria lies elsewhere. In his estimation, in order to address it, one needs to resolve the Iraqi refugee crisis, which was unleashed by the Iraq War. He says, "There has been a huge increase in the focus on the Iraqi prostitution. I don’t think that’s the main issue. We must find a solution inside Iraq. We cannot really find a solution for these refugees in a country of 20 million that already has a population of 1.1 million Palestinian refugees." Alkadi seeks to stem the flow of refugees leaving Iraq and thus, by extension, the number of future prostitutes.

Some organizations argue that financial assistance and refugee resettlement opportunities should be expanded in order to address the refugee crisis. In a July 2007 press statement, Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International‘s Middle East and North Africa program, states, "The Syrian authorities have responded very positively to the Iraqis’ needs, but they and the Jordanian authorities should not be left to bear the weight of this crisis alone." He went on to scold nations who had previously committed to providing financial assistance but had yet to cough up the funds.

But a lack of money is not the only problem. Refugees International underscores that offers from the international community to resettle Iraqi refugees have also been scarce. For example, the United States initially promised it would accept 7,000 Iraqi refugees by October of this year, yet, to date, has accepted only 133. Sweden, which had allowed thousands of Iraqis to resettle, has recently closed its borders to them. The silence of other nations on this issue is deafening.

In the absence of a political solution in Iraq and as a result of the international community’s failure to address the growing humanitarian crisis, the ranks of Iraqi refugees continues to grow, and they continue to become more desperate. And thus so, too, the number of young girls forced into the ugly world of prostitution continues to grow.

Meanwhile, another Friday night picks up in Jeremana. The cramped sidewalks overflow with pedestrians. Parents walk down the street with their children, past colorful juice bars and cafes. The atmosphere is boisterous and lively. But down a quiet side street another night of work begins for some other children, who under different circumstances might be out with their families.

For more info read these recent stories about the crisis in Salon, the Guardian and the New York Times.