Fleeing One 'Rape Regime,' Syrian Refugees Are Sexually Exploited While Seeking Safety

Government-sanctioned rape often does not receive wide media coverage, but many women are assaulted in Syria, Ethiopia and even in the European countries to which they have fled

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A Syrian woman in a refugee camp in Lebanon in March.
A Syrian woman in a refugee camp in Lebanon in March.Credit: Hussein Malla / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

What does a young Syrian refugee living in Athens do in order to reach Germany where her fiancé lives? Refugees like her are required to remain in the first country they succeed in fleeing to; moving on to another country afterward is nearly impossible.

The woman told the Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (The New Arab) website that she bought a fake travel document for $800 as well as another fake document certifying she didn’t suffer from the coronavirus. The man smuggling her across the border was asking for another 5,000 to 7,000 euros ($6,080-$8,520) but offered her a “discount of 3,500 euros in exchange for sex. She refused. Another smuggler – this one, an Iraqi national – offered her similar terms.

Another young woman, who received a 7,000-euro offer to be smuggled to Sweden, said the deal required her to travel with the smuggler as a couple. To allay any suspicions by border police about they’re not being a real couple, she was told that the two would have to be photographed having sex. Another woman, age 40, reported that she had to have sex with the man who smuggled her from Syria to Greece via Turkey.

Reports by Syrian and European human rights organizations present a disturbing picture of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women being sexually exploited as they sought to flee war-torn Syria for safety and asylum in Europe. Many of them were long prevented from telling their stories, some out of shame and/or fear that family members would be harassed; others feared launching a complaint with the police because they had entered the country they are now living in illegally and were at risk of being sent back to Syria.

“Everyone is aware of the inhuman conduct that’s occurring. You have to decide between the worst of two evils – to refuse sexual exploitation and remain trapped in the country you’re in or to pay the price with your body and hope that way you can get travel documents to reach the country where your spouse or family are living,” said one activist in a human rights group that takes care of refugees.

Smuggling refugees, which has developed into something more akin to human trafficking, is nothing new. Many female refugees from Syria have been forced to work as prostitutes in Syria and Europe. Mothers have sold their children to men in order to pay for their families to get to Europe or in order to sustain themselves while they sit in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

In a few cases, these women have fallen victim to police and soldiers at border checkpoints. In the best case, they are “only” subjected to invasive body searches; in other cases, they are raped or suffer other physical abuse.

Centuries ago, the rape of women was not simply the outcome of the passions that arise in war, but was used as a form of political punishment whose purpose was deterrence. It could be that the wholesale rapes by ISIS of Yazidi women in the years 2014-15 are the best-known recent instance of sexual assaults committed for political or religious reasons: The goal wasn’t to harm the women as much as to punish their husbands for refusing to convert to Islam or serve as ISIS soldiers. Or it might have served as a deterrent to any resistance to ISIS rule.

More recently, there have been reports of thousands of rapes by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers of Tigray women during the war fought in northern Ethiopia. Even though rape is regarded as a war crime, no one has yet sought to prosecute Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders for the actions of their troops.

A long-time “rape regime” is the Syrian government. Not long ago, reports began surfacing about the extent of assaults in Syrian prisons, during interrogations and at government checkpoints. In an interview, a former inmate of a Syrian prison recounted how guards had brought her to detention rooms, where they gang-raped another inmate. The guards warned her that this would be her fate, too, if she didn’t provide them with information on her fugitive husband.

To mark International Women’s Day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights issued a report in March that detailed thousands of cases in which government officials sexually assaulted women. They were responsible for the sexual torture of an estimated 11,500 women during the years 2011-21, the report said. Exact numbers are impossible to reach in the absence of documentation and the estimate is in fact a low estimate.

Political rape, in contrast to personal rape, is regarded as another cost of war that innocent bystanders are forced to pay. “Collateral damage” is the sickening term for a practice that neither the victims nor foreign governments can do much about.

In the most advanced Arab countries, Arab feminist organizations and legislation have managed to create a conversation in social media opposing sexual assault. They have even racked up some accomplishments until they ran up against the wall of political abuse and rape.

Rape encouraged by government, or by militias in their service, has not received much media coverage. Killing, massacres and the destruction of homes are the foundations of wartime journalism. You can measure them and estimate their economic cost. Rape is a weapon that can’t be measured. Its damage isn’t subject to financial estimates and its victims are women, who in any case are the weakest component of society.

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