Amid Syrian refugee flood, aid workers grapple with a new set of problems

February 7, 2013

A recent report on Syria’s growing refugee crisis showed the extent to which fears of sexual violence are driving women out of the warn-torn country.

But the trail of gender-based violence and abuse also follows women out of Syria to camps, where they are also vulnerable, even under the watch of aid organizations.

As the crisis continues, more women are taking refuge in towns and villages, where they are difficult to account for, aid workers say, making it particularly challenging to provide care and protection.

Syrian refugee woman

A Syrian refugee woman holds her son as she stands at the window of their friend’s house at the Syrian-Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, December 6, 2012. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

“Not only can women be targeted because they may be more vulnerable to certain types of violence but they also are in many ways the face of this crisis,” said Alina Potts, an emergency coordinator with the International Rescue Committee.

Potts recently spent three months in Lebanon setting up outreach programs specifically for women and girls. She had previously visited Jordan and Lebanon last year, during which time she met with displaced women and girls to talk about their needs.  She found that female refugees were uniquely at risk for abuse, and heard stories of women who were attacked after they crossed the Syrian border — both in camps and then again after they sought refuge in villages and towns.

When women cross the border unaccompanied by adult male relatives, they may be at higher risk of exploitation and abuse, Potts said. “They’re trying to access shelter and maybe go to rent a room and an unscrupulous landlord says, ‘I realize you don’t have the money to pay rent but if I can marry your daughter I will give you a place to live.’”

About 636,000 Syrians have been displaced by the conflict, according to the United Nations, and regional tensions further complicate international relief efforts. One need only look to Lebanon, a country nearly pushed to the brink of its own civil war due to internal conflict over the Syrian fighting, to see why. But estimates on of the percentage of women among the total Syrian refugee population vary. The U.N. reported that children make up more than half of the total refugee population.

“Unfortunately, the impact of sexual violence is far and wide and the threat does not always end when those fleeing conflict arrive in refugee camps,” Zainab Bangura, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, told Reuters in a statement. A representative of UN Women, an organization within the United Nations focusing on gender equality and the empowerment of women, were unable to comment about the media reports of sexual abuse in formally run refugee camps beyond a recent Commission of Inquiry report on the subject.

In Lebanon alone, where no official refugee camps exist, Potts said the refugee populations she saw were roughly 80 percent women and children.

While refugee camps are supposed to provide more security for some women, they aren’t necessarily a tenable option for all. Camps in Syrian border nations like Jordan and Iraq are “struggling to meet even the most basic needs,” according to a late-2012 report from Refugees International. And the numerous, sometimes horrific stories of life in these camps – mid-winter, no less – are well known by now.

The result is that women are more likely to flee to towns where they can escape tent life, sometimes when they’re not financially ready, according to Marcy Hersh, a senior advocate for women and children’s rights with Refugees International, who visited Turkey, Jordan and Iraq on behalf of her organization.

“For urban refugees, their own personal financial resources are going to run out,” she explained. “They’re not going to be able to continue to pay rent. They’re not going to be able to pay for food.”

Compounding this problem, Hersh said, is the relative lack of resources that some refugees brought with them out of Syria in the first place.

“As you can imagine, when they fled Syria, they left their homes with whatever they could grab. It was a run for their lives,” Hersh said.

And the sheer length of the Syrian uprising also caught many by surprise, International Rescue Committee’s Potts noted.

“A lot of people coming from Syria didn’t realize how long they’d be displaced,” Potts said. “Even if the conflict were to end soon, a lot of people probably wouldn’t be able to return quickly.”

Unmarried women may be particularly at risk, Hersh said. “There’s a sense that unmarried women are just much more likely targets of sexual violence.”

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More unimaginable horror heaped on unimaginable injury, loss, and deprivation. Is there no aid or respite? Where is the outrage in our global community?

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