Some refugees turn to prostitution

Syrians are exploited by pimps, traffickers, even their families

By Jamal Halaby

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 8 2013 9:21 p.m. MST

Syrian refugee stands atop a water tank at the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Syrian border in Mafraq, Jordan.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ZAATARI, Jordan — Walk among the plastic tents in one corner of this sprawling, dust-swept desert camp packed with Syrian refugees, and a young woman in a white headscarf signals.

"Come in, you'll have a good time," suggests Nada, 19, who escaped from the southern border town of Daraa into Jordan several months ago. Her father, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and a traditional red-checkered headscarf, sits outside under the scorching sun, watching silently.

Nada prices her body at $7, negotiable. She says she averages $70 a day.

Several tents away, a clean-shaven, tattooed young Syrian man, who says he was a barber back in the city of Idlib, offers his wife. "You can have her all day for $70," he promises. He says he never imagined he would be selling his own wife, but he needs to send money back to his parents and in-laws in Syria, about $200 a month.

As the flow of Syrian refugees into neighboring Jordan is sharply increasing, so is their desperation. With Syria torn apart by civil war and its economy deeply damaged, the total number of people who have fled and are seeking aid has now passed a million, the United Nations said this week. More than 418,000 of the refugees are in Jordan, which recorded about 50,000 new arrivals in February.

Scores of the Syrian women who escaped to Jordan are turning to prostitution, some forced or sold into it, even by their families. Some women refugees are highly vulnerable to exploitation by pimps or traffickers, particularly since a significant number fled without their husbands — sometimes with their children — and have little or no source of income.

Eleven Syrian prostitutes who talked to the AP in the refugee camp, a border town and three Jordanian cities asked to remain anonymous, citing shame and fear of prosecution by police in Jordan. Prostitution in Jordan is illegal and punishable by up to three years in jail, and foreign women and men found guilty can be deported.

The majority of the 11 women say they turned to prostitution out of a desperate need for money.

It's impossible to pin down how many Syrian refugees are now working as prostitutes in Jordan, but their presence is inescapable. Syrian women outnumbered those from any other country in several brothels, and in a couple of cases, virtually all the prostitutes were Syrian. Pimps say they have more women who are Syrian than of other nationalities.

The influx of Syrian women has been noticed by the competition: A 37-year-old Jordanian woman running a chain of at least seven brothels in northern Jordan complained that they were taking over the business.

"Men have been asking for Syrian women because they like the blond and light-skinned among them, and the chances that they may create problems, like blackmailing married Jordanian men, are almost nonexistent," she says. "My policy has been, you either befriend them so that they'd work with you, or get rid of them by tipping police about them."

Jordanian police also say dozens of Syrian women now work in prostitution. On one day last month they arrested 11 women, eight of them Syrian, at a coffee shop in Irbid for alleged "indecent public behavior."

Despite strong traditions against sex outside marriage, prostitution takes place in the Arab world, as in other regions, though it is largely more hidden. While there may be known cruising areas in cities, overt red-light districts are rare, and some prostitutes even wear face veils to hide their activities.

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