When Home is the Mouth of a Shark* : Gendered Consequences for Syrian Women Refugees

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. Continue reading “When Home is the Mouth of a Shark* : Gendered Consequences for Syrian Women Refugees”