Sexual Violence Plays A Hidden Role In Syria’s Refugee Crisis

Syrian refugee camp in Turkey

Oxfam America president Ray Offenheiser made an astonishing statement last week, saying that what is happening in Syria may be worse than Darfur. More than one third of Syria’s population of 20 million requires humanitarian assistance, and the death count is currently estimated at as many as 120,000. Approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees have poured into neighboring countries, a number that is predicted to more than double by the end of the year if the fighting continues. While many components of this crisis have been heavily scrutinized, little attention has been paid to the causal role that sexual violence plays in this mass exodus of Syrians. Insidious and oppressive, rape and other forms of sexual violence have become a devastating weapon of Syria’s war, that will have repercussions throughout Syria and the region.

In interviews conducted by international humanitarian and U.N. agencies, many refugees cite their victimization or fear of sexual violence as one of the primary reasons for fleeing Syria. Sexual violence reportedly takes place primarily in house raids, at check points, and in detention centers, the majority of which are carried out by the Syrian Army and affiliated militias, or shabiha. Women and children tend to be the most vulnerable to this sort of attack, but men suspected of supporting the opposition are often subject to sexual violence in detention centers as a means of interrogation.

Under international law, the use of rape and sexual violence as part of a widespread, systematic attack against a civilian population constitutes a crime against humanity and a war crime. The U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has stated, “Rape and other inhumane acts, as crimes against humanity, have been committed by Government forces and affiliated militia. Rape, torture and inhuman treatment are also prosecutable as war crimes.”

Unfortunately, societal and cultural norms predicate that victims of sexual violence are a “dishonor” to their family. Because of this cultural stigmatization attached to sexual violence, as well as the chaotic nature of the conflict, incidences of sexual violence are underreported and numbers are hard to come by, making the scope of the issue unclear. And while victims not only have scant access to support services, their families may reject them, or take drastic measures to “preserve” the victim’s dignity. Sexual violence is having a clear fractural effect on the integrity of Syrian families, communities, and the nation itself.

Additionally, the millions of Syrian refugees pouring into neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, embroil an already politically volatile region. Sectarian tensions, economic and political uncertainty are exacerbated by the huge strain of refugees. Jordan, resource-poor and with a population of 6.5 million, is currently hosting an estimated of 500,000-800,000 Syrian refugees. The Za’atari refugee camp in the north is now the fourth most populated urban center in Jordan. Lebanon – a country of 4 million Sunnis, Shias and Christians only two decades removed from its own sectarian civil war – is strained by the addition of one million mostly Sunni refugees, according to the Lebanese government. Turkey has shouldered the $1.5 billion financial burden of hosting Syria’s largest refugee population, until recently when it appealed to wealthy states for financial and humanitarian assistance. Many Iraqi refugees in Syria are now returning to uncertain homes in Iraq, marked by increasing sectarian violence and political instability.

The mass use of sexual violence has become a compounding factor in the Syrian crisis that continues to ensnare the region. While world powers deliberate how to end the civil war in Syria, agencies and organizations such as Oxfam and UNHCR are struggling to raise money for humanitarian aid. Humanitarian agencies and organizations can also provide support services and aid to victims of sexual violence. While it may not be possible to prevent the sexual violence in Syria, the international community should recognize its prevalence and ensure that its victims have even a modicum of support, regardless of whether Syria is worse than Darfur.