On Women and Children of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

child returning into Kobane. 3.4.2015, Kobane, Syria

An unaccompanied child from Kobanê, Syria, making her way into Turkey (Image credit: Radek Procyk)

IF YOU’RE FROM THE U.S. and don’t keep up with the latest news from around the world, news of the sudden influx of Syrian refugees into Europe might have come as a shock. I knew about the boats of migrants looking for a port that would allow them entry, a situation that bore an eerie resemblance to the voyage of the St. Louis in 1939. Still, even I was surprised to see hundreds and thousands of people backpacking into Germany and Austria. But I wondered, what are they fleeing?

As it turns out, the Syrian refugee crisis is fairly easy to explain. Around 10 years ago, a record-breaking drought — the result of global climate change — hit the country. Over five years, it killed 85% of affected livestock, and formerly-rich agricultural areas withered and died. The effects of climate change are set to cut Syria’s agricultural capacity in half over the next 35 years.

Displaced farmers and their families, some 1.5 million people, crowded into the cities, where food, water, and employment were scarce. The situation resembled the American Dust Bowl, and it quickly grew dire. This was in the middle of the Arab Spring, to which many experts claimed Syria was immune.

Then, a group of frustrated youth from affluent families in Daraa vandalized buildings with slogans from populist uprisings in neighboring countries. The teens were arrested and tortured by secret police. When their families protested the treatment, President Assad’s regime opened fire on them. The government’s retaliation only drew more people to the cause, however, and protests continued, spreading out from Daraa in southwestern Syria to al-Qamishli in the northeast.

The ensuing Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, weakened and primed the country for takeover by ISIS. Hundreds of thousands have died as a result of the conflict, which includes the Assad regime, various militia groups, jihadists, and the foreign nations — the U.S. included — backing them. Nearly 8 million Syrians have been displaced within their own country.

To date, almost 4.1 million people have left Syria to seek asylum in other countries, even though it was once a major destination for people seeking refuge in the Middle East. In 2008, Syria was home to more than 1.8 million refugees: one for every 11 citizens; most of these displaced people had fled violence in Iraq and Palestine. These asylum-seekers face tougher challenges than their native neighbors when attempting to flee the violence tearing Syria apart. Palestinian refugees who flee with Syrians are often denied entry to neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon.

Time reports that rapid emigration in Syria is hurting ISIS. The terrorist group currently controls half the country, but “[t]he torrent of refugees leaving Syria dwarfs the trickle of foreign fighters flowing in.” Even Assad’s military is facing reduced numbers as citizens flee the country for peace.

Overall, the Syrian refugees are split evenly along gender lines. However, women and children have far more to fear from ISIS forces, who have become infamous for the rape and abuse of young women and girls forced into their internal slave markets. Tens of thousands of immigrant families in Jordan and Lebanon are headed by single mothers, whose husbands have been killed or lost in the fighting.

There are thousands of unaccompanied children living in Syrian refugee camps. Some have been sent ahead as scouts and hope to reunite with their families, while others are war orphans. Many, if not most, will find homes with sympathetic families. Still, UNHCR and UNICEF stress that formalizing adoption procedures and monitoring guardians of unaccompanied minors is important to protect these children.

More distressing are the numbers on child marriage in refugee communities. Among displaced Syrians living in Jordan, 51.3 percent of young women were married before the age of 18. Although most were married before immigrating to the country, 65 percent of survey respondents claimed the average age of marriage had remained the same; only 10 percent said that people were marrying older in Jordan than in Syria, while 23 percent said brides and grooms’ aged had decreased. [To read more about the adverse effects of child marriage on young girls, check out Lady Clever’s coverage here.]

Girls in refugee communities have few options. Restricted mobility and limited access to education are part-and-parcel to migrant life. But in places where girls and their families feel they are not safe outside the home, these conditions worsen, and young women become more likely to experience gender-based violence (GBV). According to the survey above, “[83] percent of those surveyed do not know of any services available for survivors of GBV in their community.”

Although I typically caution against knee-jerk reactions to what we see as oppression in non-Western cultures, the Syrian refugee crisis presents very real danger for already marginalized populations of women and children. By providing these refugees with permanent, stable homes, we can increase their opportunities and quality of life. Those who oppose opening borders and doors to give shelter to the emigrating masses do so at the risk of condemning these women and girls to lives of gender-based oppression and poverty.