With the world’s attention focused on the Islamic State and the growing numbers of refugees fleeing Syria, it is easy to think of these people and of their plight in stale numerical terms. But as the United States considers whether or not to take in these refugees, it is important to understand what life actually looks like for these populations—particularly for the women and children who comprise such large numbers of the refugees fleeing Syria.
To date, there are over 10 million persons in need of assistance as a result of the Syrian conflict. 6.4 million are internally displaced persons, 241,000 are trapped in besieged areas, and the rest are refugees in neighboring countries (CEDAW: Syria, 2014). The people choosing to leave their war-torn homeland behind, fleeing into unknown and often hostile environments in neighboring countries, are overwhelmingly women and children—three-quarters, according to Human Rights Watch.
The practical effects of this statistic are deeply troubling. Syrian women and girls displaced by this conflict are at heightened risk of sexual violence and exploitation (CEDAW: Syria, 2014). Much of this has to do with social and cultural stigmas around women’s independence, and the practical implications of living through a war. Both forces have the same effect: women do not leave their homes. “Whether based in fact or rumor, refugees’ belief that women and girls face danger outside the home creates a very real barrier to using facilities, from clinics and schools to latrines” (Human Rights Watch).
Women refugees’ lack of mobility also negatively impacts their health. With social stigma and security concerns limiting their access to even the latrines, female refugees are disproportionately barred from access to the limited health services provided at the refugee camps. In particular, these women lack access to reproductive and maternal health services—an especially concerning problem given that by January 2014 alone, over 40,000 Syrian children had been born as refugees (Inter Press Service). There is also concern among aid workers regarding the high rates of domestic violence among refugees, and the lack of access to social services for the victims (Human Rights Watch: World Report 2014).
The concerns of these women should be central to any discussion of the refugee crisis: as of July 2014, the number of female-headed households among Syrian refugees had risen to 145,000—one in four refugee households (UNHCR). Tragically, one in three female refugees are too scared to leave their homes, and unsurprisingly, only one-fifth of them have managed to find work. Forced from their homes and ripped from the kinship networks that would normally support a female-headed household, these women are left with few options. In their struggle to support their families, some of these women are pulled into exploitative work and housing arrangements, and easily find themselves at risk to human trafficking and sexual exploitation (International Rescue Committee). Others turn in desperation to marriage, only to find themselves in polygamous, forced, or child marriages (Hacettepe University: Migration and Politics Research Centre). In the most tragic cases, women struggling to find work, pay rent, and feed their children may turn to suicide. While there are few solid statistics on the occurrence of suicide among female Syrian refugees, news reports have begun to describe the “horrific death scenes” that take place in these desperate communities, as terrorized and stigmatized women struggle to care for their families (Foreign Policy Magazine).
In contrast, a refugee family that is able to successfully navigate the strict vetting process for entrance into European and North American countries will given a plane ticket to a more hopeful future. They will be greeted at the airport by representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who will help them locate the best area of the country for them to settle. Their children will be enrolled in school, and the parents will be given access to the resources they need to find jobs, learn English, and establish a life in their new home country. In the United States, the refugees will be eligible for a green card after one year. After five, they can apply for citizenship.
This is the difference, in quality of life and safety for their families, between what refugees face now and, hopefully, what they will find in the future. Currently 97% of Syria’s refugees are being absorbed by the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. These countries are overburdened and unable to provide a decent quality of life and sense of security, much less a hopeful future. Of course we should continue talking numbers—we should be aware of the amount of Syrian refugees in the world, the number of refugees recommended to the U.S. and other western countries, their demographic makeup and the financial and institutional burden we will bear in welcoming them. But in doing so, let us not forget the human experience—and horrific tragedy—behind those numbers, and the individuals and families in need of our help.
For more information on refugees around the world, take a look in our database. All of our refugee information is housed under one variable: CWC-Data-3. Access, as always, is free of charge.