Patricia Alonso
Apr 27 2018

Syrian refugees turning to sex work being driven to the edge of society in Turkey

Having escaped the brutal seven-year civil war in their homeland, many Syrian refugees face poverty and discrimination in Turkey. Some have turned to sex work, but have then been driven further into the periphery of society and have little access to justice in response to violence and exploitation, said a report by the Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, a Turkish non-governmental organisation

The number of Syrian refugees registered in Turkey has surpassed 3.5 million, according to the United Nations refugee agency. While Turkey says it has done more than any other country to help those fleeing the war in Syria, integrating such a large number of displaced people is a great challenge. Media reports and organisations such as International Crisis Group report increasing hostility toward Syrians in Turkey, especially in the big cities.

Red Umbrella, an organisation that works with sex workers promoting health and human rights, warned an increasing number of Syrian women and girls are being forced into prostitution in Turkey.

In some cases, it said women – including transgender women – are exploited by criminal gangs. But in other cases, husbands or fathers act as intermediaries. On average, they make as little as $600 a month, Red Umbrella said.

“I work with my husband. He finds me clients, and I stay with them,” said one of the women sex workers interviewed by Red Umbrella. “My husband rents apartments for daily rent, and I stay there with the clients. We cannot bring them home; we don’t want to entangle our children in that dishonour. I have four children; the income we make is hardly enough to look after them,”

The Red Umbrella report, published in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund said news about sex workers had led to increased xenophobia against Syrians in Turkey. One of the reasons is they are seen as lawbreakers. Although the Turkish Penal Code does not criminalise sex work, everything around it is illegal, such as laws against exhibitionism and obscenity.

Some women reported being beaten by their husbands or intermediaries, and in some cases, even by the police. Because of their legal status – many do not have a work permit – and their activity, sex workers are unable to report the abuse.

“Once I was very tired. There were some clients whom I did not want to receive, so I got beaten,” explained one of the interviewees. “I remained silent because he’s my husband and head of the household.”

“Syrian sex workers who are driven into the periphery of social and economic life by the effects of gender, migration, refugee status, sex work, sexual identity, poverty and similar dynamics are being tested by challenges of stigmatisation, discrimination, violence, murders and suicides,” the report said.

“With very limited access to justice mechanisms following violations of their rights, Syrian sex workers become victims of violations of rights as well as of impunity in a vicious circle,” it said.

It is even worse for LGBTI sex workers. “LGBTI refugees face more problems than other refugees. For trans people it is especially bad. But for transgender refugee women who are sex workers and have HIV, the situation is terrible,” said Çelik Ozdemir, the head of a Turkish NGO supporting LGBTI refugees in Istanbul.

The organisation helps LGBTI refugees apply for asylum and provides refuge for those who need it, guidance and free HIV tests.

Red Umbrella also pointed to the commercial sexual exploitation of underage Syrian girls who, it said, are often sold as child brides to much older Turkish men. Unfortunately, such cases are perhaps the most difficult to identify.

As early as May 2014, the MAZLUMDER human rights organisation reported that young Syrian girls in Turkey were being sold as third or fourth wives, or for temporary marriages.

A representative of one of the main NGOs working with children in Turkey said the organisation had not encountered cases of child sex workers, but had seen underage girls who already had three or four children. Such cases, he said, were hard to identify. “They hide them, so we have no access to them,” he said.

Some cases of abuse are less obvious. When Bachar arrived in Turkey, he was still underage. His family was killed in Damascus in 2012, and he was alone. After living for a while on the streets of Istanbul, a fellow Syrian, older than him, offered him shelter and a job. They became lovers. “I didn’t like him at first. But he was very good to me,” Bachar explained. Today, Bachar has HIV and receives support from one of the few organisations working with cases like his.

So far, the humanitarian response in Turkey has been an emergency response to cover immediate needs such as health, housing or education. However, few groups have focused on particular needs like sex work, LGBTI issues, or child abuse.

Local and international aid groups need to address these problems individually, the NGOs said. Given that women make up for the majority of displaced Syrians, they said a plan was necessary to protecting female refugees and create the right conditions for them to be able to report abuse.