News and Commentary

Rape Runs Rampant in Syrian Refugee Camps

Bodies crammed into the entrapments of makeshift tents, cries of unrest permeate throughout the camp brewing a cacophony of desperation: these are the sights and sounds coming out of refugee camps all around southern Europe and the Middle East. As refugees sacrifice life and limb to escape civil war and sectarian violence, they are promptly rounded up by military personnel from neighboring European and Arab countries and forcefully escorted to densely-populated refugee camps to await processing or deportation.

The horrors of war continue to mercilessly haunt these peoples in the camps, as verified reports confirm cases of rampant rape and sexual violence against women cloistered within its confines. Despite Germany’s unprecedented pledge to spend $6.6 billion on a projected 800,000 refugees, the estimated 28,500 resettlement spots within the country are minimally supervised and underdeveloped. Nearly 5,000 asylum seekers have been housed in dilapidated US military bases in the town of Giessen, western Germany. A coalition of international monitoring agencies and (four) women’s rights organizations drafted a letter addressed to the Minister of Integration and Social Affairs in the state of Hesse (Germany) exposing the neglect and abuse faced by the camp’s most vulnerable inhabitants:

It is a fact that women and children are unprotected. This situation is opportune to those men who already regard women as their inferior and treat unaccompanied women as ‘fair game.’ As a consequence, there are reports of numerous rapes, sexual assaults and increasingly of forced prostitution. These are not isolated incidents.

These camps in Germany just offer a small snapshot of an epidemic of sexual violence in refugee camps across the region.

The German government has yet to conduct a comprehensive investigation on these allegations, but Dr. Manal Tahtamouni, director of the Institute for Family Health, insisted that the prevalence of rape and sexual abuse is far higher than the reported numbers suggest. The rows of UN tents scattered through refugee camps in Zaatari, a remote region in the Jordanian deserts, are no safer for women than the battle fields of Syria.

Across the border from Assad’s tanks, women are sold, bartered, and raped by men in the camps, fellow refugees escaping the terrors of war. Melanie Megevand, an expert in gender based violence at the International Rescue Committee, lamented this epidemic, correcting misconceptions about the realities on the ground faced by refugees. “There is a tendency to think that once [women] have crossed the border, they are safe. But they just face a different violence once they become refugees,” stated Megevand.

Gender-based violence endemic in these refugee camps is symptomatic of the vicious negative feedback loop of sectarian warfare. In a war between men, women are used as sexual hostages; “as a terror tactic, rape aims to destroy or expel populations or ethnic groups, impregnate women, intimidate civilians, pillage land and resources, and may serve to increase military morale,” according to a 2009 paper published by PLOS Medicine. The sexual violence seen in refugee camps occupied primarily by displaced Syrians is not unique. “In refugee camps in Darfur and Chad, where hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people are displaced, women [are] essentially imprisoned because they cannot even travel to get firewood or water without risking being raped,” reported PLOS Medicine.

Putting a face on these heinous crimes against humanity, Um Firas, a woman who escaped the city of Homs in Syria and now resides in Mafraq, nearby the camps of Zaatari, told the Guardian newspaper about her plight and shared the unspeakable horrors she experienced in Syria. “They were targeting women. Iranian and Hezbollah fighters came into our neighborhood with their swords drawn. The women they found, they raped. They burned our houses,” explained a tearful Firas. “I was maybe 100 women stripped naked and used as human shields.”

Gender-based violence endemic in these refugee camps is symptomatic of the vicious negative feedback loop of sectarian warfare.

Within the camps, young men are the most-represented demographic. Men, overall, dramatically outnumber female asylum-seekers. The gender inequality is most pronounced for the age-range 14-17 or 18-34, with three-quarters of applicants in these groups being male. This discrepancy leaves women and children outnumbered and vulnerable to the discretion of young men traumatized by everything from chemical gas attacks to brutal torture (and even violent sexual assault).

According to Dr. Manal Tahtamouni, director of the NGO, Institute for Family Health, the gendered schism on the ground, is informed by religious dictates, cultural prescriptions, and trauma, devastates women in the camps. “This is a conservative area. If you have raped, you wouldn’t talk openly about it because you would be stigmatized for your entire life,” said Tahtamouni.

The brutal conditions, lack of resources, and signs of utter desperation, marked by deafening pleas for asylum inside the refugee camps call to mind Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. Men, women, and children are forced into heavily guarded spaces, psychologically tortured by authoritarianism and desensitization. Trauma and war exacerbate pre-existing attitudes about gender as some young men imperiously assume authority and ownership over women’s bodies, clawing at the illusion of power. Women and children become prisoners, the men become guards, reenacting scenes of hierarchical abuse suffered on the battle fields of Damascus.

From intra-religious massacres in Sanaa to lawlessness in Libya, refugees escaping persecution stem from every corner of the region and are now seeking asylum in Europe, by the hundreds of thousands. The majority come from Syria, however, a country that is no longer recognizable as a nation-state. Bashar al-Assad’s unrestrained campaign of systematic slaughter has forced out nearly half the Syrian population.

The figures are disorienting, not seen since the aftermath of World War II. From the start of the conflict in March of 2011, nearly 9 million Syrians have fled their homes. A majority of migrants, estimated at 3 million, relocated to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, Syria’s relatively less perilous neighbors, at least by regional standards. 150,000 Syrians have officially petitioned for asylum in the European Union, but many more are unaccounted for, precariously floating in the liminal space of border crossings and detainment camps. The overwhelming majority of refugees are trapped within the Syria’s borders (or what’s left of its porous borders). 6.5 million men, women, and children wait for some sort of elusive absolution in the war-ravaged hell-on-earth.