A UNHCR report has found that sexual violence towards boys and men stemming from the Syria conflict has been far more prevalent than was previously thought. Some of the victims were as young as 10, the oldest over 80.
The study was based on information mainly gathered in late 2016 and provided by several dozen informants and through discussions with around 196 refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. It found that sexual violence towards boys and men is much more common than had been believed. The report found that children and elderly men were also victims, but that gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals were particularly vulnerable.
Victims have accused armed groups within Syria of carrying out mass rapes, with sexual violence often occurring in detention or prison facilities. One focus group of refugee women in Jordan estimated that between 30-40 percent of the adult men in their community were victims of sexual violence while in detention in Syria. A Syrian refugee called Sami, told UNHCR, "A man would never speak of this. Why should he? We know that everyone in jail is raped — it is normal."
Numerous individuals have described shocking torture while in detention, including weapons being used as tools of rape. A gay refugee called Tarek recalled his experience in the report:
"When I was in detention in Syria I was tortured in every possible way. We were 80 persons in one cell with no light for 30 days. We were all naked. At night, they hung us from our hands — they tortured us with electricity to the genitals. They would come into the cell to violate us, but it was dark — we couldn't see them. All we could hear were people saying, ‘Stop! Don't! … I thought we would die."
Khalil is 13-years old and comes from Damascus. He works five days a week in this tailor’s workshop in the basement of a residential house in the working-class Istanbul district of Bagcilar. In this area there are sewing rooms like this one in almost every street. And there are almost always children like Khalil working in them.
The sewing machines rattle practically non-stop. Four of the 15 or so people working in this tailor’s shop are children, all from Syria. The Turkish textile industry is one of the trades in which a lot of people work illegally. Many are underage children who are taken on as cheap labor, with no papers and no social security.
Yearning for school
"I don’t think about the future," says 13-year-old Khalil, who’s sorting bits of cotton fabric. A young woman is sewing them into women’s panties. Sorting, cutting, sewing — the two are a practiced team. Back home in Syria, Khalil was in third grade; then the war came, they fled, and he hasn’t been back to school since.
Exploiting or helping?
Child labor is forbidden in Turkey. Anyone who employs children under the age of 15 is open to prosecution. The owner of this tailor’s shop knows this, which is why he wants to remain anonymous. "I give the children work so they don’t have to beg. I know it’s forbidden, but on the other hand I’m helping families that wouldn’t have enough to survive otherwise," he says.
"I hope I can go home"
Musa is also 13. Like many people in this tailor’s workshop, he comes from the province of Afrin in northern Syria, which has a majority Kurdish population. What does he do when he’s not working? "Play football," he says. "I hope there will soon be peace in Syria and we’ll be able to go back home. Then I want to study there and become a doctor."
Cheap is the priority
Thousands of women’s panties are sewn and packed here every day, in various colors, patterns and sizes. They’re sold in bazaars for a few Turkish lira apiece. The aim is to undercut the Chinese competition. The children here are paid a rate of less than 50 euro cents ($0.60) an hour. Adults earn about twice that.
A 12-hour day
Aras is 11 and has been working here for four months. Her mother is pregnant; her father has a job of his own in a textile factory. Aras’ day begins at 8 a.m. and often doesn’t finish until 8 p.m. She’s allowed two breaks a day. Aras earns 700 Turkish lira a month — around 153 euros.
Studying is a luxury
Because she works Monday to Friday, Aras can’t go to an ordinary public school. She attends classes at a Syrian aid organization at the weekend, so that at least she’s learning something. Math, Arabic and Turkish are on the curriculum. The teachers themselves are refugees from the war in Syria.
Lessons are time out
More than 70 children aged between four and 18 attend the little Syrian school each day. Sometimes the teachers visit families at home and persuade the parents to send their children to lessons, at least a few days a week, to give them a stab at a better future, and to give them a chance — for a while — to be what they are: children.
Not only in Syria
However, outside Syria, there is a danger of opportunistic abuse in refugee camps or through informal employment opportunities in countries of refuge. The report noted that there is concern that the high rate of child labor among Syrian refugee boys, which, for example, is 94 percent in Jordan, leads to sexual exploitation and rape. Refugee boys and men have reported that some employers refuse to pay wages until sexual acts are performed.
It has also been found that boys in countries of refuge are often targeted by older youths, with accounts of rape occurring in refugee communities on a daily basis.
Volker Türk, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner, was quoted in the report, saying, "These are most disturbing accounts revealing just how grave the risk of sexual violence has become both for women and girls and, as shown by this recent report, also men and boys. And it's clear too that we are faced with a vicious cycle here of little help being available, limited outreach to male survivors, inaccessible services, and a culture of silence — all of which reinforce a myth that this problem is rare."
The report has called for further research to be carried out in this area. But in the meantime, there have been several recommendations, such as improving survivor care, increasing awareness among humanitarian workers and strengthening strategies for sexual violence prevention.