For the past six months we have been fervently praying for victims of sexual exploitation in Syria and Iraq, where the ravaging effects of war and the rise of ISIS have forced millions into situations of extreme vulnerability to trafficking.1 Now our focus turns to Istanbul, Turkey, a place that has become a major hub of refugees and migrants fleeing the violence and destruction that has overtaken Syria and Iraq.
Last year alone an estimated one million Syrians and 100,000 Iraqis arrived in Turkey fleeing the violence in their own countries.2 In refugee camps and crowded Turkish border and transit towns, there are vulnerable women and girls who are running from persecution, and sadly falling prey to trafficking rings that are forcing them into sexually exploitative situations. These can range from illicit marriages to blatant prostitution.
Many of the women who fall prey to the criminals, pimps, and “match-makers” are often young widows or girls who have no strong social or family networks.
Many of the women who fall prey to the criminals, pimps, and “match-makers” are often young widows or girls who have no strong social or family networks. They are targeted for early marriage or sexual exploitation and in many cases male relatives are complicit.
The phenomenon of selling refugee women and girls into marriages has grown over the past years, and a hoard of Turkish johns and marriage “customers” are taking advantage of the refugees’ desperate circumstances. “In some cases, the men want a short-term marital union, or prostitution with a moral mask. Within weeks, the Syrian bride might find herself sleeping on the streets, alone and disgraced, at risk of an honor killing if male kin find out.” “Ninety percent of the women who marry like this are the victims of injustice,” says a local man named Alajali.3
“The Future of Syria—Birth Registration and Statelessness. A young mother crosses the border from Syria and becomes a refugee.”
“Lebanese Town Opens its Doors to Newly Arrived Syrian Refugees. Exhausted and uncertain about the future, a line of Syrian women and a young girl queue to register at an impromptu registration centre.”
Women and Children Among Syrian Refugees Striking at the Platform of Budapest Keleti Railway Station.
To make matters worse, Turkey is a country where prostitution is legal and is a place where sex trafficking easily flourishes due to an expanding and unhindered demand for commercial sex.
Turkey is a country where prostitution is legal and is a place where sex trafficking easily flourishes due to an expanding and unhindered demand for commercial sex.
With the Syrian civil war now in its fifth year, having displaced millions of civilians and killed some 200,000, the plight of Syrian refugee women and girls living in Turkey has been well-documented by international organizations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the United Nations.
The IRC interviewed hundreds of Syrian refugees living in Turkey. When they were asked “what are the biggest challenges you are facing”, the number one response was the daily reality of sexual exploitation. The women overwhelmingly revealed that they feel constantly fearful and experience extreme levels of harassment.4
“Samaa, a woman who fled the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo with her family more than a year ago, lives in a rundown hotel in a border city in southern Turkey flooded with Syrian refugees. She says, “If a Syrian woman asks for help – whether it is money, work, or a place to rent – there is immediately a request for something in return, something that is haram [sinful],” explains Samaa. “A restaurant owner told me he would employ my children on the condition that I sleep with him.” The two boys now do odd jobs at the restaurant. Her and her children manage to net about $20 per day. The room they all share costs $30 a day. Samaa, who has a urinary tract infection, works in prostitution while they are away to make up the difference and tries to maintain a veneer of discretion as a Syrian pimp directs customers to her room. Samaa says she is locked in this vicious cycle.”5
The refugee situation is clearly compounding what was already a very bad situation—as even before the war in Syria, Istanbul, Turkey was a hotspot for prostitution and trafficking.6 Not surprisingly, many women and girls outside of the Syrian refugee community who are trafficked in Istanbul are from Eastern Europe. Notably many are from Moldova. A researcher, who recently interviewed handfuls of Eastern European women forced into prostitution in Istanbul, wrote down the story of a Moldovan woman named Victoria. She sadly recounted:
“There is nothing extraordinary or unusual about my story. Or I don’t think so… Like many other families in Moldova, ours was very poor…. After my mother died of breast cancer and father went to prison for raping me, I was left alone and pregnant. My godmother offered to help with the abortion and arranged for me to go to Turkey. ‘The conditions are much better there and they’ll look after you,’ she told me. At the airport in Istanbul I was met by two men who drove me to a property where there were three other girls, Moldovan and Ukrainian, and told me I was to serve their clients. I told them I was pregnant but the men raped me in the next room that same day. Locked up and under constant security, I saw no way out. Weak from starvation and abuse, I agreed to seeing clients. There was no choice but work the streets and nightclubs every day, sometimes serving up to a dozen men or even more.”7
The sexual exploitation of women and girls in Istanbul, Turkey is getting more dire as the years go on. Now in addition to the scores of Eastern European women trafficked for sex, there is an ever-growing refugee population fleeing the ravages of war and seeking refuge in, and through, Turkey. Sadly these women don’t find safety. Instead they face the constant threat of being sold for sex.
For the next few months please pray for the war in Syria to come to an end, and for ISIS to be defeated in both Syria and Iraq in order to stem the tide of the massive refugee crisis that is leaving millions vulnerable to exploitation in Turkey. Also, pray for the liberation of the scores of women and girls who are captives of the commercial sex industry in Istanbul and who are victims of illicit marriages.
- 1. https://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/resource-file/IRC_WomenInSyria_Report_WEB.pdf
- 2. US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2015
- 3. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2014/1026/In-Turkey-Syrian-women-and-girls-increasingly-vulnerable-to-exploitation
- 4. https://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/resource-file/IRC_WomenInSyria_Report_WEB.pdf
- 5. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2014/1026/In-Turkey-Syrian-women-and-girls-increasingly-vulnerable-to-exploitation
- 6. See US Department of State Trafficking in Person’s Report 2001-20015
- 7. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2588795/The-shocking-fate-Eastern-European-sex-trafficking-victims-revealed.html#ixzz3vwIaj447
- The Future of Syria—Birth Registration and Statelessness by UNHCR/S. Rich/April 2013. Licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Lebanese Town Opens its Doors to Newly Arrived Syrian Refugees by UNHCR/M. Hofer/November 2013. Licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Women and Children Among Syrian Refugees Striking at the Platform of Budapest Keleti Railway Station by Mstyslav Chernov/September 2015. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.