14 January 2013

Syrian Refugees Fleeing Sexual Violence, Says IRC Report

Syrian refugees fleeing the violence caused by the civil war are facing further challenges once they leave Syria. An estimated 600,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, but camps are struggling to meet the basic needs of the refugees. “Current assistance levels are drastically insufficient to address existing needs, let alone the barest requirements to respond to a lengthy humanitarian emergency and post-conflict recovery,” says the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) Commission on Syrian Refugees in a report, Syria: A Regional Crisis, released today. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has repeatedly attempted to gain access to some of the hardest hit areas in Syria, but has been met by serious challenges. ICRC President Peter Maurer said that the situation in Syria was getting worse in mid-December even though the organization was able to expand services in country. The nature of the fighting forced ICRC staff to react to events and deliver services when possible rather than set up a permanent response. 

The IRC report confirms many of the same challenges to reach Syrians citing a continually moving frontline of fighting and intimidation tactics used against medical professionals. Syria is deploying “a systematic campaign to restrict access to lifesaving care through the strategic bombing and forced closure of medical facilities,” said physicians to IRC. 

Violence extends beyond fighting found IRC. A significant number of the Syrian refugees interviewed for the report citied rape as a reason for fleeing the country. A 28-year-old woman from Dara’a described hearing an attack on her neighbor. “When they raided the house next door, we could hear the rape of my neighbor, my friend,” she told IRC. “And then they arrested my brother and tortured him for days. He survived but they scarred his body and destroyed his genitals. We stayed at home, even when we were running out of food. We were too afraid to go out.” 

She fled to Jordan after the armed men beat her husband and threatened to arrest him. The rapes are rarely reported due to stigma associated with it. Those interviewed by IRC expressed concerns ranging from retribution by perpetrators to honor killings by family members. 

However, the refugee camps provide little in terms of physical safety and mental resources for the women. “Many of these women have experienced rape and torture in Syria, but as refugees can’t find the support they need to heal their physical and emotional scars—let alone provide food and shelter for their families,” explains Sanj Srikanthan, IRC Emergency Field Director. 

Though refugees have escaped the violence in Syria, life in camps in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon remains challenging. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that 600,000 Syrians have fled the country and expects the number to rise to 1 million in 2014. 

Save the Children and other NGOs raised concerns in November about the lack of shelter and clothing for refugees as winter approached. The warnings have appeared to come true as evidenced by recent events. Countless reports this past week describe refugees without winter clothing, flooded tents, and unsanitary camp conditions

The IRC report recommends that countries continue to keep their borders open for refugees. Lebanon turned back internal opposition and said it will allow refugees to enter the country, but called on the members of the Arab League to provide financial support for the estimated 200,000 Syrian refugees in the country. 

While a good amount of reporting focuses on the refugee camps, an estimated 70% of Syrian refugees live outside of the camps. IRC urges donors to increase their funding to meet the needs of the refugees and says that the response must make the urban refugees who are not in the camps a priority. 

“Donors need to step up, recognize the severity of the humanitarian crisis in and around Syria and face the virtual inevitability that this is going to get much worse and last much longer than initially anticipated,” says IRC-UK Board of Trustees Co-Chair, Sir John Holmes.