Desperate, some fleeing Syria turn to prostitution

Saturday - 3/9/2013, 4:10am EST

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 file photo, a Syrian refugee stands on top of a water tank at the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Syrian border in Mafraq, Jordan. Tens of thousands of Syrians are flowing into Jordan a month, many with no money and resources. A significant number of women in the Zaatari camp, which houses some 120,000 refugees, fled with their children but not their husbands and have little or no source of income. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon, File)

JAMAL HALABY
Associated Press

ZAATARI, Jordan (AP) -- 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 alone, the highest influx to date.

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. Arrangements can be made by phone, and short-term or informal marriages are sometimes used as a cover for prostitution or sex trafficking.

Particularly sensitive are the charges of prostitution within the Zaatari camp, housing some 120,000 refugees, which is funded by the U.N. and hosted by Jordan, a largely conservative Muslim nation. The camp gives refugees tents or pre-fab shelters and rationed supplies of staple foods, but conditions in the desert are bleak and aid money is running short.

"We have seen no evidence of prostitution in the camp, but we have heard rumors of it," said Andrew Harper, chief of the U.N. refugee commission in Jordan. "Given the vulnerability of women, the camp's growing population and the lack of resources, I'm not surprised that some may opt for such actions."

Residents at the camp complain that the unlit toilets become brothels at night, and aid workers say dozens of babies are born without documentation for their fathers, possibly because of prostitution. Mohammed Abu Zureiq, 50, a camp janitor from Daraa, says along with prostitution, some women at the camp are sold outright.