The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions: Syrian Refugees and “Marriages of Convenience”


This article is the second in a two-part series commissioned by RH Reality Check. You can find the first here.

An estimated 150,000 people have fled Syria for Jordan since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. The Jordanian authorities have made much of how they’ve welcomed refugees, but even after they granted the United Nations permission to build 200 refugee camps along their northern border, housing up to one million people, the focus is still very much on temporary solutions to what may be a long-term problem.

Refugee services include short-term housing, inexpensive rentals, “holding centers,” and, since August 1, the first tent camp at Zaatari. Countries as dissimilar as Egypt, France, and Saudi Arabia have dispatched medical teams to the border to provide on-site care. Save the Children has launched projects at Zaatari for young people. These efforts are essential, amid what the Jordanian government has just recently begun to call a humanitarian crisis.

Women tend to bear the brunt of the more slow-burn problems surrounding conflict, and the setup in Jordan is ripe for this to continue. So-called “refugee issues” are not just those related to camps, or to short-term care. Jordanian and Syrian societies are close-knit socially, and much of the focus until very recently has been on how to integrate those fleeing across the border into Syrian society, and into homes and pre-existing structures. In this environment, “marriages of convenience,” or even forced marriages, can thrive, essentially undetected. Many question whether—under the circumstances—these marriages are even a problem at all.

Talk is Cheap

Visitors to Amman speak of a recent phenomenon: get into any taxi, chat with the driver, and he will tell you that “cheap wives” are to be found in the refugee camps near the Syrian border. “Cheap” refers to the dowry given to the brides’ families, as well as to the women’s expectations. Jordan is a comparatively poor, aid-dependent nation. Around 14.2 percent live below the poverty line, according to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook. Nevertheless, cultural norms dictate that most Syrian women will have lower expectations for their standard of living, having come from an even poorer country.

“There are all kinds of social conceptions of Syrian women as the most obedient, the most caring of their husbands out of all Middle Eastern women,” says Khadija, an activist from the northern Jordanian town of Irbid, close to the Syrian border.

“There are all kinds of jokes now within Jordanian society that the women should watch out, as with all these Syrian women in the country, the men will always choose a Syrian woman over a Jordanian woman.”

Add to this that Syrian women are normally paler, a valuable asset in a region in which skin-bleaching products replace tanning products. There is a growing sense that female Syrian refugees, while socially elevated, are now increasingly perceived as vulnerable, due to the conditions under which many refugees are living.

The State of Things

Until the opening of the Zaatari tent camp, refugees were being housed in so-called “transfer” facilities, usually rehabilitated private property that had formerly served as parts of the university campus, or even private gardens. The Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), an umbrella group tasked with the coordination of all aid and refugee services in the Kingdom, has said that all refugees currently living in transfer facilities will be transferred to Zaatari, which can house up to 120,000 people.

Until now, refugees were held in facilities that were labeled as temporary until a Jordanian citizen could act as a “guarantor,” who would care for the refugee financially and legally. But the situation has reportedly been far from temporary for many. In early May, during a visit to Jordan by this reporter for RH Reality Check, Mohammed Kilani of the JHCO estimated that the Beshabshe tower block, designed to house 700 people “is holding at least 2000.” Aid worker Hisham Dirani of Muhajeroon Ahrar reported that there was “no plumbing, no sewage, and no ventilation.” One former resident said, “I met people in there who’d been there for six months… It was like living in hell.” The expectation that, as Kilani put it, “a Jordanian family will open their homes to these people” after a short stay did not always prove true for those who did not have Jordanian relatives or a guarantor to bail them out.

Guardian Angels

Into this troubling situation comes the guardianship system, instituted primarily to allow refugees with friends or family who are Jordanian citizens to come to the transit facilities and to vouch for the continued well-being of the refugees, once they leave the camp. Given the years of intermarriage and long-standing familial and social connections between the two neighboring countries, there is undoubtedly a logic to this system.

There is, however, also potential for abuse.

Jordan boasts a long history of accepting refugees from all over the Middle East, but it is questionable to what extent Jordanians are “opening their homes” to refugees in camps with whom they have no family ties. The camps, either temporary or longer-term, are based primarily in Jordan’s northern region. The desperately-poor surrounding areas experience water shortages and electricity outages. “These are close-knit communities,” a Jordanian colleague said. “You wouldn’t just invite strangers to live in your house; you need some kind of social link to make that possible.” 

It’s possible that those acting as guardians for refugees are doing so because it is culturally expected of them. And a marriage between the two families provides a “convenient” way of making this socially acceptable as well. It’s also possible that men are entering the camps looking to find wives, and in so doing are bringing the women, and possibly their families, into their homes.

Former residents of Beshabshe spoke frequently of witnessing men being allowed into the block in order to, effectively, cruise for wives. Statistics on the scale of the problem are impossible to obtain. It’s also impossible to contact anyone who has had personal experience with the issue. “You hear stories everywhere of how Syrian women have a price now,” said “O,” a female anti-regime activist, who lived in the Ramtha center when she first arrived.

I heard of one man marrying six different girls in this situation, and I even met a family who were ready to sell their daughters. With all the misery I saw in that center, I could predict the kind of future that these girls would face. I don’t want to judge their motivations, but at the same time, these men are opportunists. It’s sick.

Kilani viewed the issue purely in terms of aid. “But is it really such a problem?” he argued. “If a man marries a woman, he is obliged to care for her family.” That the women involved are being denied a role in choosing whom they marry did not appear to concern him. Indeed, such marriages can be beneficial to many charities and aid groups dealing with the Syrian refugees, because their limited funding can stretch only to short-term care. Off-loading a few women from the system means more resources to go around. Furthermore, many, if not all, of the organizations have some kind of religious affiliation, be they Muslim or Christian, making them less likely to criticize something that plays into a conservative social structure.

Aid organizations have condemned the guardianship system’s potential for exploitation, in terms of both marriage and work. Many international organizations that have visited the camps, including the Beshabshe transfer facility, were concerned about the lack of follow-through after refugees had been signed out of the facility. Unfortunately, none were willing to comment on the guardianship issue, given the shift of focus to the housing of refugees in Zaatari. That initiative brings its own set of new problems. Eva Abu Halaweh of the Jordanian human rights law group, Mizan, said:

While foreign women who marry Jordanian men are entitled to equal rights before the law, any marriage formed through this kind of relationship is going to have a built-in power imbalance, which could bring further problems.

The families of Syrian girls, married as young as ages 13 or 14, are increasingly concerned for their safety. Khaled Ghanem of the Islamic Society Centre told the U.N. news service, IRIN, “In Maraq, we have come across around 50 cases of early marriages since the day we started helping out Syrians. Most of them are married to Syrians, especially cousins.”

According to Jordanian marriage laws, age 18 is the legal marriage age, but religious leaders can grant “informal” marriages to younger people. The marriages can be certified when the parties turn age 18. IRIN quoted a mother, who arranged marriages for her daughters, ages 15 and 14. “As a single mother,” she said, “I cannot support them. I cannot feed them. I wanted to make sure they are okay, so I asked around if people know of good Syrian men they could marry.” Such arrangements involving Jordanians do not seem such a remote possibility.  

The policy toward refugees is changing with the move to Zaatari, but this does not mean the end of issues surrounding “marriages of convenience.” Zaatari is operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Its policy of “encampment” means that refugees are unable to leave the camp. There is also debate as to whether the guardianship system has been suspended or ended altogether. But with refugees now confined to a tent camp on an unforgiving dust plain in the middle of the desert, some are keen to escape by any means possible. Also, Zaatari is guarded by the Jordanian police, who have been responsible for guarding the transfer facilities, such as Beshabshe. Given that they were apparently allowing men into the camps before, there is no guarantee that they won’t continue to do so while policing Zaatari. With confusion over whether or not the guardianship system has ended, and with the camp filling up, and resources being stretched, there is potential for further exploitation.

Better the Devil You Know

This issue cannot be examined without looking at the “convenience” aspect, because this is not purely an issue of brute force and one-sided exploitation. For the women, girls, or families involved, socio-economic factors drive their consent to, or encouragement of, such arrangements.

One factor is a desire to propel oneself or one’s daughter out of the situation in which the refugees are being forced to live. It’s a shockingly obvious choice: live in a refugee camp in potentially awful conditions, or enjoy comparative freedom in Jordan. Because there is frequent intermarriage between the two countries, the latter may seem like the most sensible option. Girls are also more likely to be seen as burdens. Finding someone else to care for them lightens the already heavy load on families, who are struggling to support themselves in cheap accommodations, or trying to make meager rations feed a family in a refugee camp.

Another factor is fear of the unknown. The future of Syria hangs in the balance, and, sadly, the conflict now engulfing its main cities could rage on for years. The situation for those who left is as unstable as for those who stayed. The draw of a new, more secure life in Jordan is strong in a time of crisis. “Women being traded always happens with war,” O said.

But still, I worry about these girls. I know that this is a kind of survival strategy, but I wish instead that having survived the Assad regime would have made them stronger in a different way—to be able to escape not just the regime but to a place where they are not harmed like this.

The third, and most worrying factor, is the fear of rape, which is pushing families to marry off their daughters. Being raped can result in social isolation that will ruin the woman’s future chances of marriage, and thus of social and financial security. During a recent visit to Zaatari, I talked to a refugee from Baba Amr in Homs, who told me, “You need to know, everyone needs to know: they are raping women. Hezbollah, the Iranians, they are in Syria and they are raping women.”

Another interviewee from Dara’a said, “Regime forces go into the houses, round up the men to kill them, then they rape the women.” Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, recently wrote in The Atlantic Magazine about a project her group conducted to map the incidences of rape in Syria found 117 reports thus far. Eighty percent of the victims were female, and the majority of those surveyed said the attacks came from pro-regime forces. Rape as a weapon of war has, unfortunately, become standard practice, despite the fact that the presence of foreign elements in Syria is still open to debate. But whatever the identity of the perpetrators or the actual stats, the fear of rape is real and widespread among the refugees. One of the many abominations committed in the fog of war, rape is just as frightening as shelling. This might explain the link to Hezbollah or Iran—whether true or otherwise—in the minds of some of the refugees.

A Syrian woman who married a Jordanian from Mafraq almost 20 years ago said, “In one of the mosques you find Syrian men who saying that they will marry their daughters for free, provided that the man is suitably religious, to ensure their safety.” By marrying, or by ensuring that their daughters are married, even if that means staying in Jordan, women are preserving their social status and security for years to come. They are also fleeing a form of violence that they cannot report, one which may remain a weapon in an increasingly sectarian conflict long after Assad falls. A “marriage of convenience” to escape the possibility of rape may be confining in some ways, but the fathers are consenting to their daughters’ marriages to preserve their dignity. Some are even arranging their marriages, which is common in more conservative societies such as those in Syria and Jordan. This smacks of allowing legal rape in place of illegal rape.

Silence Is a Virtue

Syrian men do not believe that the “marriage of convenience” is a problem that should be publicly discussed. Intensely patriotic Syrians who have left often spend their days discussing their hopes for a better Syria without Assad. For them, the idea of Syrian women marrying foreigners seems to hint at a kind of lost national pride. They sense that something is being stolen from them. “I’ve been clear with my daughters; they are not allowed to marry a Jordanian man while we’re here,” said the father of a family of eight living in Mafraq. A number of men had come to propose. “One was the owner, who is 56, of this building who saw one of the girls and liked her, but we said no,” the father said. “The other was a man who sent one of his female relatives to come and suggest the idea, but we said no again.”

Some are unwilling to recognize the problem of “marriages of convenience.” Pushed to comment on the issue, Kilani said, “Syrians have been marrying Jordanians for many years. Surely there are at most 20 to 25 cases if this is true?” He is right in one sense; hard evidence is extremely difficult to obtain, due to the social taboos, which fuel the entire issue. But anecdotal evidence is growing exponentially. Women who have been inside Beshabshe or one of the other camps have spoken of it. And “cheap brides” jokes are now so commonplace in northern Jordan that they’re almost passé.

Shining a light on this issue requires a careful balance of cultural sensitivity and criticism. The first response to raising the problem is often a gentle shrug and a reference to tradition. This problem may be rooted in long-standing traditions governing marriage, and that factor should not be dismissed. There is no wish here to rush in and point the finger in a way that is at best intolerant, and at worst racist. There is also a concern when writing about this issue that it feeds into every prejudice surrounding how women are treated in the Middle East. That is not the intention. However, that should not be a barrier for a necessary discussion. This is not an issue of “forced marriage,” but rather an examination of the cultural forces that can bind women to oppressive social structures, here and around the world.

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