“We have been advocating intensely the need for the continued unwavering support of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries
Woman pictured not connected to the story. © Wiki Commons
“We have been advocating intensely the need for the continued unwavering support of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries
Last updated: May 22, 2014

She escaped the Syrian war only to live under sexual abuse in Qatar

Banner Icon They may have fled the war, but the battles Syrian refugees face abroad are proving to be relentless.

“In terms of prevention and response, the local and institutional capacities in the region are either overstretched or non-existent,” a UNHCR spokesperson, who wished to remain anonymous, said regarding the many cases of violence against Syrian women and children.  

Acknowledging and reacting to the abuses against Syrians in the Gulf countries remains poor. The reason is twofold; firstly, since 2011, when the Syrian revolution escalated into war, there has been no record available of the number of Syrians admitted into the Gulf countries.

Secondly, and more importantly, they are not considered refugees. None of the GCC countries are currently signatories to the 1951 Refugee convention, which requires host countries to acknowledge who is a refugee and ensures that their basic rights and asylum are protected. 

Of the Gulf countries, Qatar has gained considerable attention for its relentless support of the Syrian opposition. This has materialised in the form of military and humanitarian aid. On the home front however, it remains as difficult as ever for Syrians to gain refuge to the small state.

"None of the GCC countries are currently signatories to the 1951 Refugee convention"

“There is clearly a larger Syrian presence felt here since the war but the obstacles are immense and there are many rules,” said Khaled, a Syrian currently living in Doha with his wife. “There are no options for asylum here if you are Syrian.”

One Syrian women in her mid twenties, who we shall call Sara, agreed to anonymously account her experiences when she pursued a work opportunity in Qatar just over a year ago.

With the war in Syria escalating by the day she were considered lucky when her future employer sponsored her visa to work in Qatar. The gesture came complete with accommodation and a salary eight times its equivalent in Syria.

Under the highly contested Kafala system, without guardian sponsorship by a national it is illegal for foreigners to work in the Gulf. Sara soon fell prey to her employer’s overruling control when he began to sexually assault her.

“If you complain they just threaten to deport you,” Sara explained when asked why she did not report the rape. “He had control over everything and I was scared. I knew of other girls who were getting abused and none spoke up. Anyway, who is going to believe a Syrian girl in the Qatar?”

A London based UNHCR representative, who also wished to remain anonymous, said with reference to this last point: “In a desperate situation Syrian refugees have developed a negative coping mechanism towards a possible combination of abuses from arranged temporary marriages to survival sex.”

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While this uncomfortably explains why abuses are not reported, it does not account for the lack of independent aid organisation in operation on the ground. 

International human rights organisations seem to be hindered by the lack of data available to them on this matter. When asked to comment on this story, the same UNHCR spokesperson in the Gulf, stated: “The problem is that we are not in a position to provide information on something we do not have a record of.”

“We have been advocating intensely the need for the continued unwavering support of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and all countries that are hosting them,” he added. 

In the run up to the 2022 World Cup, scheduled to take place in Qatar, the country has been penalised for its abusive treatment of migrant workers. On 13 May a Qatari official announced a plan for Kefala reforms. The news been greeted with premature conclusions on all sides. Human Rights Watch’s UAE researcher, Nicholas McGeehan, expressed his disappointment simply: “Reforms are a far way away.”

In response to Sara’s story, McGeehan concluded: “This is a tragic twist to a familiar issue.” It remains clear that without significant changes to the Kefala, foreign workers in Qatar, Syrian or other, will continue to be targets of abuse.   

Antonia  Roupell
Antonia is an independent documentary filmmaker and journalist specialising in stories from the MENA region. She is based between London and Beirut.
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