UNHCR study uncovers shocking sexual violence against Syrian refugee boys, men
A study commissioned by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, into sexual violence against men and boys in the Syria crisis indicates that this violence may be far more widespread than previously understood.
UNHCR’s study involved several dozen informants and focus group discussions with some 196 refugees in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan and mainly conducted in late 2016. Its main findings were:
- Sexual violence and torture of men and boys in Syria by multiple parties to the conflict appears to be far more common than previously thought based on discussions with survivors, refugees and informants. UNHCR researchers heard accounts of violence against boys as young as 10, and against men including those in their 80s.
- Gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and this vulnerability does not end when people leave Syria. Inside Syria armed groups were reported as the main perpetrators. Outside Syria, the danger is often from opportunistic abuse.
- Refugee boys in countries of asylum suffer sexual violence at the hands of other male refugees and from males in the local community. The high rates of child labour among Syrian refugee boys (up to 94% males in Jordan) are of particular concern in this regard.
- Sexual exploitation and blackmail of refugee males in countries of asylum was reported, especially among those working in the informal economy.
Those interviewed for the study provided shocking accounts of what they, or others known to them had experienced. Several spoke of severe and debilitating violence, including weapons being used to sexually assault. Much of this was reported as occurring in detention or makeshift prisons.
“When I was in detention in Syria I was tortured in every possible way. We were 80 persons in one cell with no light for 30 days. We were all naked. At night, they hung us from our hands – they tortured us with electricity to the genitals. They would come into the cell to violate us, but it was dark - we couldn’t see them. All we could hear were people saying, ‘Stop! Don’t! … I thought we would die,” said a gay refugee, identified as Tarek.
Another refugee spoke of the horrors a relative had endured:
“One of my uncles in Syria was arrested. A few months after he was released from detention, he told us – he broke down, crying in front of us – that there was not one spot on his body that had not been abused by an electric drill. He had been raped… After he was released he stopped eating and became alcoholic. He died from kidney failure.”
Among boys in countries of asylum, one respondent described sexual violence, often by older youth, as happening ‘on a daily basis’. The report quotes a legal aid officer as saying the problem is often referred to as ‘bullying’, but that later it would be found out that sexual acts such as rape were involved. Many boys drop out of school. This is due to bullying and violence, including sexual violence, further compounding the challenge of school attendance among refugee children.
Refugee men and boys working informally reported the refusal of some employers to pay wages until sexual favours were performed. They also spoke of blackmailing through the use of sexually humiliating photos and videos taken on mobile phones.
“These are most disturbing accounts revealing just how grave the risk of sexual violence has become both for women and girls and, as shown by this recent report, also men and boys,” said Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection. “And it’s clear too that we are faced with a vicious cycle here of little help being available, limited outreach to male survivors, inaccessible services, and a culture of silence – all of which reinforce a myth that this problem is rare.”
UNHCR’s report was undertaken with a view to examining the characteristics, causes and impact of sexual violence against boys and men, and with a view to identifying good practices and other means of addressing the needs of victims of sexual violence. It makes a number of recommendations geared towards humanitarian agencies and others involved in working with refugees. These include the need for stronger prevention strategies, better confidentiality arrangements, protection against reprisals, improved survivor care, and strengthened awareness among humanitarian agencies and staff. The report also recommends that further research be done with a view to more effectively preventing and responding to sexual violence against males in conflict and displacement.
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