By Dominique Soguel
Monday, November 22, 2010
Iraqi war refugees in Syria are legally barred from work while they wait for resettlement. For single women the risk of forced prostitution and sex trafficking is so high that a U.S. legal advocate says they deserve priority refugee status.
DAMASCUS, Syria (WOMENSENEWS)--Of 52,054 Iraqi families registered here with the United Nations as war refugees, 29 percent –15,843 – are headed by women. Usually, those women have children to feed and lack the customary protection of a male relative.
Another group of refugees here--lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders--also face a particularly high risk of violence as they wait for possible resettlement to a nation willing to receive them.
One female head of household, Amina, whose real name is not being used to protect her privacy, is open about the dangers she faces as she waits.
"There is no safety," Amina said in an interview with Women's eNews, "As soon as people discover a woman is alone, they try to exploit her."
She says that she tried to work in a car-rental office to supplement her monthly U.N. allowance of $220 for her family of two. After a few days, the owner came in, locked the door and tried to rape her. She had to move apartments to avoid his unsolicited night calls.
Paid employment is illegal but usually tolerated for refugees in Jordan and Syria, the two largest hosts of Iraqis, since 2003. Refugees have "guest" status, which means they're allowed to be there, but have no right to work.
"He knew I was alone and that I needed money, so he thought that I would be ready to do anything," she said.
Resettlement--the only way out as far as most refugees are concerned--usually takes at least six-months and in most cases the process stretches over a few years. An emergency case takes one week but these are rare.
Many divorced and separated women here said they faced a particular extensive screening process and that lack of divorce or custody documentation slows down the process.
Another woman here--whose privacy is being guarded to protect her safety--says her case has dragged for years due to her lack of divorce papers.
What should be a simple legal procedure is no small feat, she said, when your husband is a violent member of the Mehdi army, has already kidnapped you from Syria back to Iraq once and continues to threaten your life.
"I asked him for divorce 1,000 times but he would not allow it," she told Women's eNews. "Police would not intervene because they consider domestic violence a private matter."
The husband made a habit of putting out cigarettes on his daughter's arm and beating his wife, she said. She said he is looking for her and located her last apartment.
"I am scared he will find me again and force us to leave," she told Women's eNews shortly after securing her divorce papers.
Being a victim of domestic violence may increase the difficulties faced by women seeking resettlement.
"The U.N. and receiving countries encourage battered women to formally divorce before moving them, they want to see the abuser out of the picture," said Aseer al-Madaien, protection officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Damascus.
Al-Madaien pointed out that not all divorce cases are genuine as some women hope to resettle first and reunite with their husbands later.
The New York-based Iraq Refugee Assistance Project, founded in 2008, is one of the few agencies outside of U.N. refugee agency and the Danish Refugee Council that offer direct support to women traveling without a spouse.
"People really needed assistance navigating the legal process of resettlement," said the project's founder Becca Heller. "Many thought they were on a wait-list when there was none."
After they resettle in the United States, the Iraqi refugees are given direct service by the project. The organization divides its work into individual legal representation and policy advocacy.
The project calls for the priority resettlement of Iraqi refugees who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender as well as refugees who are victims of trafficking. Gay refugees often face discrimination from aid workers and prolonged wait heightens their risk of being killed by "dishonored" relatives or homophobic neighbors.
"The U.N. has hundreds and thousands of cases," said Heller. "It is an impossible load to manage, so sometimes urgent cases fall through the cracks."
From Jordan, the organization has helped resettle more than 20 women escaping abusive husbands or facing sectarian violence from estranged partners, relatives, or in-laws who disapproved of a mixed wedding in the first place.
Six had been trafficked into prostitution. One woman was forced into prostitution by her own husband.
"An increasing number of cases have either a trafficking or prostitution element," Heller told Women's eNews. "But woman are very afraid to admit this."
Heller started her organization after the official end of the war. She visited Jordan as a tourist to witness the refugee crisis first-hand. "I felt that as an American I had quite an obligation to find out what the humanitarian fall out was of the Iraq war," she said in a phone interview.
The Iraq Refugee Assistance Program now has chapters in nine law schools; eight in the United States, one in Jordan. "There was a flood of interest because of the role America played in the creation of the Iraqi crisis," Heller added.
The United States admitted over 18,000 Iraqi refugees in 2009. Heller said that number is high compared to other countries but low in light of the 3 million refugees in Jordan and Syria who lack a permanent place to live and legally work.
Heller said the United States fears prioritizing women would create the opportunity for fraud. "They are afraid they will create a priority category for trafficking victims and everyone will claim they are trafficked."
But Heller argues that fraud is possible at any part of the refugee process and women at risk of forced prostitution or sex trafficking should not pay the price for this.
"If there was a priority category created for victims of trafficking it would cut in half the number of interviews they would have to do in order for resettlement," said Heller. "That is half the number of times they need to sneak out to speak about their story."
Iraqis targeted as a result of their work for U.S. governmental agencies, including the army and its subcontractors, are eligible to apply for a special immigrant visa. The project has resettled three women through this process.
Creating a new high-priority status would allow refugees in urgent situations--such as LGBT and trafficked women--to cut months, even years, of processing time by applying directly to the U.S. for resettlement instead of waiting for a U.N. referral, Heller said.
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Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews Arabic editor.
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