By Stephanie J. Nawyn
The war in Syria has produced the largest refugee migration since World War II. According to estimates from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, more than 4.8 million Syrians have fled into neighboring countries (with most experts agreeing that this is a conservative estimate), and are mostly entering Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. In the last year many more Syrians have attempted to seek asylum in Europe. The conditions under which these refugees struggle to survive are not entirely unpredictable, as many refugees throughout recent history share sadly similar experiences. But the scale of the crisis and the socio-political climates in the countries providing (and not providing) safe harbor have created conditions for Syrians that are somewhat unique to their situation, with some having gendered consequences.
Crossing conflict zones to reach safe countries is always dangerous, but because of the size of this migration many surrounding countries are restricting access to their borders. This has increased the use of smugglers, particularly for Syrians attempting to enter Europe. The expense of using smugglers affects all Syrians, but for women the increased costs and dangers of crossing national borders are compounded by an increased vulnerability to sexual violence. Further, as the difficulty of travel increases, women with small children or without a male family member to provide protection are less likely to attempt the journey.
While not all women are more socially isolated than men, women who before the war had less education, were not participating in the labor market, or were caring for small children tend to be more socially isolated than men, and this social isolation affects their access to information. Information is a key commodity for refugees; social media is aflame with discussions among Syrians of how to find a smuggler, the increased restrictions on certain routes, and emerging routes available for travel. Women without good information are more dependent upon others to seek safe passage out of Syria. Good information is sometimes necessary to survival, as smuggling exploitation of Syrians is rampant; some of the bodies of drowned Syrians have been found wearing fake life preservers stuffed with newspaper.
Currently most Syrians have sought refuge in countries that provide them with limited opportunities to permanently settle, notably restriction of the right to work in the formal labor market. Given that material assistance to refugees is limited, labor exploitation of Syrian refugees is widespread. In Turkey, for example, there is a large informal labor market (with estimates ranging from 30 to nearly 50 percent of all workers employed in the informal sector) that provides almost no worker protections, and wage theft of Syrians is common. Legislation passed in 2013 intended to provide Syrians with work permits has not yet produced a mechanism for Syrians to work legally.
These limitations to legal work affect all Syrian refugees, but women are especially vulnerable. Syrian women refugees are more likely to have sole responsibility for supporting young children, making it harder for them to work outside their homes. They are also more likely than Syrian men to engage in prostitution as a survival strategy. While there are concerns among policy makers and advocates that Syrian women are being trafficked into sex work, it is difficult to determine how common coercion by third parties is; Syrian women may feel forced into sex work more from dire economic circumstances than from traffickers. The stigma of sex work among Syrians makes collecting data on this problem extremely difficult.
The war has also led to an increase in child marriage and multiple marriages among Syrian girls and women. Families desperate to find support for their daughters have resorted to arranging marriages for their minor girls, and some countries have seen an increase in Syrian women entering marriages with non-Syrian men as second wives. Rather than viewing these practices as essentialized cultural practices, it is more accurate to understand them as culturally-specific strategies for women and girls in a context in which attaching oneself to a man is the only viable way of ensuring survival.
Because people tend to see women and children as more pitiable than men, Syrian women and children have dominated the images of refugees that various groups mobilize to increase sympathy for those affected by the crisis, and to raise funds for organizations providing assistance to refugees. And the image of Arab men as potential terrorists makes Syrian men particularly unsympathetic to Western audiences. While images of Syrian women with their children appearing destitute and hopeless might elicit compassion in the short run, in the long run such imagery risks constructing Syrian women as perpetual victims of this war, always and forever dependent and incapable of rebuilding their own lives. Portraying Syrian women in this way may ironically lead to less willingness on the part of national publics to accept Syrian refugees permanently in their countries. So while it is important for people to understand the suffering of Syrians and the gender-specific ways in which the war has affected Syrian women, it is also important to hold up stories of survival and resilience.
* This title of this essay is borrowed from the poem “Home” by Warsan Shire, a Somali refugee woman born in Kenya and currently residing in London.
Stephanie J. Nawyn is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology with expertise in gender and migration, focusing on forced migration and the ways that structural inequalities inhibit immigrant incorporation. Her work has primarily focused on refugee resettlement and the economic advancement of African migrants in the U.S.More recently Dr. Nawyn began a study of human trafficking in Turkey, and was a Fulbright Fellow at Istanbul University during the 2013-14 academic year. Dr. Nawyn has a co-edited a book with Steven J. Gold, The Routledge International Handbook of Migration Studies, and her most recent articles were published in Insight Turkey and Demography. Dr. Nawyn has provided consultation to refugee resettlement organizations in the United States and Turkey, and has contributed to the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report on the conditions of human trafficking in Turkey. She is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society.