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Dangerous journeys: violence against women migrants in Turkey

Syrian women migrants in Turkey face many forms of violence - sexual harassment, forced and early marriage, polygamy and trafficking for sexual exploitation. The perpetrators include soldiers, border officers and migration officers.

Syrian refugees' camp in Cappadocia, Turkey. Image: Fabio Sola Penna / Flickr

There are three million registered migrants in Turkey, 90% are from Syria of whom one and a half million are women. Interviews with migrant women reveal that many are exposed to sexual harassment and assault during war, migration and resettlement processes, with the perpetrators including soldiers, border officers and migration officers. Turkish NGO’s have collected women’s testimonies, some of which are translated for this piece, such as this one, given by a 27 year old woman who came to Turkey two years ago with her husband and children:

“The ISIS members used the women as slavery. They came to my neighbours’ door and said ‘Your daughter is beautiful; you must give her to us.’ They cut her husband’s head. My neighbour was forced to give her daughter to them because they are frightened to death. Then she came to us. She had been scared and looked crazy.”

A woman who lives in a camp in Turkey gave this account:

“We were living a camp with my husband. I was working as a cleaner with one of my Syrian friends. She took me away to a field and she started to take off her clothes. I was scared. At that moment; a soldier’s car stopped in front of us and asked us ‘What are you doing?’. I started to cry. He said the other soldiers ‘go’, called me and took my identity card and started to say ‘Your eyes are beautiful.’ Then he threatened me: ‘I take possession of (Turkish ‘genel’) your identity card. If you report this, I could say you are a prostitute and they send you to Syria again.’ I was scared and didn’t say anything to anybody. He called me the next day in order to give my identity card. Then he took away me to a house and raped me. After that day, he threatened me again. He wanted me to have sexual intercourse with his friends too. Due to the fact that I was afraid of my husband, I didn’t speak. Whenever my husband asked questions about me, I said I was sick. It continued for 20 days. My psychological problems started and I attempted suicide. At last, I reported the event, but no one took action. I told everything to the authorities, but they only sent me to another camp.”

Without an identity card, women cannot access services. They cannot report sexual harassment, go to the police, or even go to hospital. If they try, the services don’t take any action, they take them away them to migrant offices first.

Whilst Turkey has adapted international law into national law to offer some protection, there are major implementation gaps. Activists struggle with discrimination, racism and patriarchal values which mean that state agencies fail to fulfil their duty to protect against and investigate cases of violence. The Ministry of Family and Social Policies requires that shelters only work with women where the violence has taken place within Turkey. However, many women leave their countries due to violence, and are in need of accommodation when they arrive.  They currently cannot access shelters, most of which in Turkey are run by the state.  For the migrant women who are accepted, they can face discrimination and racism from other women (Turkish nationals) living in shelters, and their children are shunned.  Women talk about shelter staff ignoring the abuse and choosing not to intervene.

Many shelter staff, police officers, and other officials are not trained in migration law, resulting in  violations of the human rights of migrant women. Turkey is a party to the İstanbul Convention, but has failed to fulfil a number of its requirements, including training for professionals to ensure women’s right to protection from violence is realised.  For example, in all legal procedures there should be access to interpreters, but the absence of them, especially in police stations and women’s shelters, limits access to justice.  NGOs try to fill the gaps, but this is a state responsibility.

Women migrants living in Turkey face discrimination and many forms of violence: sexual harassment; forced and early marriage; polygamy; trafficking for sexual exploitation.  This is seen in this account of sexual harassment given by a 16 year old young women living in Izmir:

“They treat Syrian girls as if they are cheap goods. They look at them with an evil eye. At work, our boss said to one of my Syrian friends, ‘Would you like to marry my son? Why are you working in this job? Come and be a housewife.’  My friend didn’t accept this and so he offered one thousand Turkish Liras to my friend in order to marry his son.”

Speaking about provinces where refugees live densely, Batman Bar Women's Rights Commission Member Lawyer Secil Erpolat states:

“…a new prostitution sector has been formed and Syrian refugees are abused in this sector. According to the information we got from the prosecution, girls are forced into prostitution in exchange for 20-25 TL (6-8 Euros). In some cases they don’t give any money; instead they give food or any other helping material.”

Only one in 5 women are in paid employment in Turkey. Combined with this, language issues and gender based discrimination means that few women refugees can find paid work other than low paid cleaning or child care outside the formal economy, increasing their dependency on men. Women who migrate with their children face further barriers, as they cannot combine child care and employment: this is one of the contexts in which ‘early marriage’ of girls becomes a survival strategy.  Marriages under the age of 18 are not recognised in Turkey, they are common among Syrian migrants for young women.  Viewing this as a ‘cultural difference’ means that there is limited if any protective intervention. The experiences of NGOs indicate that the authorities ignore official complaints and are not willing to do legal sanctions. Some ‘early marriages’ could be understood as a form human trafficking: in the border provinces, young women are persuaded to come to Turkey with promises of a better life only to find they are forced to either marry a Turkish or Syrian man (possibly as a second or third wife), or forced into prostitution.

Whilst there is no statistical data on the scale of sexual harassment among migrant women, NGO’s know it happens to both registered and unregistered women. Control of women within their own community prevents them from learning Turkish and means they remain unaware of their rights to protection from violence, as made clear by this account by a Syrian woman:

“We shouldn’t go out of the house, we are in the houses all the day. We don’t have any connection with anybody. We don’t know the language. In Turkey, it is the same thing for us, existing or not.”

Feminist NGOs in Turkey have undertaken studies and support work with women migrants, but the scale of the problems are so large that this is only a sticking plaster.  It is for this reason that they are calling on the Turkish authorities to ensure that women migrants are afforded their rights under the Istanbul Convention: the European convention on Violence Against Women that was finalised in Turkey in 2011.

Read more articles on openDemocracy in this year's 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Commissioning Editor: Liz Kelly


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