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Last Updated: Monday, 3 December 2007, 15:02 GMT
Prostitution ordeal of Iraqi girls
By Lina Sinjab
BBC News, Damascus

Iraqi dancers
Many of the Iraqi dancers are in their early teens
With their bright neon signs and glitzy decor, dozens of nightclubs line the streets of the Maraba district in the Syrian capital Damascus.

It's here that men come from far and wide - car number plates are not just from Syria but Iraq and Saudi Arabia - to watch young women dancing.

Most of the dancers are teenagers and many of them are Iraqi refugees.

They dance for the cash which gets tossed onto the stage.

The dancers are surrounded by bodyguards, to stop them being touched by the men. But the guards also arrange for their charges to be paid for sex with members of the audience.
A woman came to my mother, who agreed to send me to these places. We needed the money

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees have moved to Syria and Jordan during the past four years, escaping the violence and instability that followed the US-led toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Women supporting families face the greatest challenge.

The Syrian authorities and aid agencies do not know the exact numbers, but many of the women say they have little choice but to work in places like Maraba.

Lost innocence

Rafif is an innocent-looking 14-year-old, her long hair tied in a pony tail. She seems barely to understand the enormity of the crisis she is living.

"I have three sisters who are married and four brothers. They are all in Baghdad. I am here with my mother and young brother only. None of my family know what I do here."

Banned from doing regular work in Syria, she says their money ran out and her mother started looking for other means to survive.

She says she makes about $30 a night at the clubs, but when men take her to private villas she makes $100. She won't say what she must do to earn this money.

"A woman came and spoke to my mother, who agreed to send me to these places. We needed the money.

"I have already been arrested for prostitution and sent back to Iraq, but I came back with a false passport."

Not all sex workers went into the industry by choice.

Nada, 16, says was dumped by her father at the Iraq-Syria border after her cousin "took away my virginity".

Five Iraqi men took her from the border to Damascus, where they raped her and sold her to a woman who forced her to work in nightclubs and private villas.

She is now waiting at a government protection centre to be deported back to Iraq.


The government says police have arrested Iraqi girls as young as 12 working as prostitutes in the nightclubs.

Maraba nightclub
Maraba's nightclubs advertise services seldom on show in Syria
"We are coming across increasing numbers of women who do not manage to make ends meet and are therefore more vulnerable to exploitative situations such as prostitution," says Laurens Jolles of the UN refugee agency.

"Intimidation and shame means the numbers of trafficking victims and sex industry workers in Syria may never be known by government or aid agencies."

Women picked up by the police are sent to protection centres, which they frequently escape from, or are sent to prison.

"Immediately after we get to them, or sometimes before, they are bailed out of prison, often by the same people who probably forced them into prostitution," says Mr Jolles.

Many of the young women who leave Iraq hoping for an easier, safer existence find what is in some ways an even tougher life in Syria.

At an age when life should just be beginning, Iraqi teenagers like Nada feel they have reached a dead end.

"Now they will send me back to Iraq, I have no-one there and in any case I am afraid for my life. I have no hope leaving here. I have told the government I don't want to go back. My family has abandoned me."

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