Yesterday's MSNBC report on the growing incidence of child prostitution among Iraqi refugees in Syria was a real eye-opener. Not only because of the ugly facts: Along with all the other horrors of the U.S. invasion, now many Iraqi girls have been forced into prostitution to feed their families. But the story is also eye-opening because it isn't news, yet so little has been done to stop it.
Back in 2005, Salon covered this result of wartime desperation. Since then, Iraqi refugees in Syria have roughly doubled to an estimated 1.2 million (this according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, but the Syrian government estimates far more) and the desperation has only grown. With all Iraqi refugees banned from employment, the burgeoning sex trade has become one of the few sources of income for refugee families. According to a piece in the Independent in late June, one women's group estimates the number of Iraqi prostitutes to be around 50,000. At least a portion of these prostitutes are not the mothers but the daughters of these families. And we're not talking euphemistic "girls" here -- but children in their early and mid-teens. MSNBC's Richard Ingal even observes girls who appear younger than 6, roaming the stages of Damascene sex bars and dancing in tight outfits. (The club owner told him the little girls were there because of a lack of baby sitting!)
According to MSNBC's Web site, more than 500 people responded to the story, with many posters asking what they could do. As yet there isn't an obvious answer, like an organization that is specifically targeting these girls. One possible place to send money is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Last month Sybella Wilkes of the UNHCR in Damascus said that the organization was in the process of developing a program to identify Iraqi families who have resorted to "survival sex," Contacted today, the UNHCR's Washington office didn't know the status of the new outreach program.
Another small action is to participate in the International Rescue Committee's letter writing campaign to support Iraqi refugees. The campaign puts pressure on Congress to continue funding the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations as well as to increase the number of Iraqis that are allowed to settle in the U.S. According to a recent report by the State Department, only 692 Iraqis have been settled in the U.S. since 2003 -- a shameful number given the millions of refugees the war has created.