On the 6th of August 2012, Algerian online newspapers and social networking sites reported the rape of a 26 year old Syrian woman who had sought refuge in Oran, having fled from Homs as a result of the on-going crisis in Syria. Local police and other national newspapers very quickly denied the story, stating that it was a ‘rumour’. Generally speaking, rape survivors remain meticulously hidden within the patriarchal dominant discourse of Algerian society in which gender-related violence is often denied and is embedded in a culture of disbelief.
The news was embarrassing and shameful for Oran, a city well-known for its established welcoming and reputation for hospitality, upheld by its local population.
Despite the 2,100 miles separating Homs from Oran, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in July 2012, hundreds of Syrian refugees have entered the second biggest Algerian city. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) claims that more than 2.1 million Syrians are now hosted in the North African region, placing an unprecedented strain on communities, infrastructure and services. According to the Algerian Ministry of the Interior, 12,000 refugees are in Algeria, yet only 400 are registered in Algiers. Local support groups dispute this number, suggesting the higher total of 20,000. Women and children make up around 80% of this refugee population. The majority have no means of supporting themselves, having only the few economic resources which they brought with them in a hurry.
Women’s experiences of being forced to flee
In the summer of 2012, I was in Algeria conducting fieldwork for my PhD and went to meet Syrian women in the city of Oran. ‘We came from Homs to Algiers first, via Jordan’, explained a young woman in La rue Monpat, a relatively poor area,’We stayed three months there in the camps…I knew a Syrian family here who told me Oran would be better, people are very open minded and known for their hospitality’. She showed me an ID card delivered by the Algerian authorities, which, she said, would be renewed within 90 days.
Another young mother explained how she went to Egypt first before ending up in Algeria: ‘As you know, in Egypt and Syria there is a war! And with the recent events in Rabia El Adawiya, I no longer felt safe with my kids there…Before landing at Houari Boumediene airport I thought to go to Tunisia first, then I chose your country because it is the most stable in the region’. When asked whether or not the Algerian authority supported them in any way, she answered that she relies on the Red Crescent for food and shelter: ‘Syrians who come to Algeria are helped by the authorities and the Red Crescent on the condition that they will not speak to anyone, including media, about their problems, with the threat of being deported from Algeria’, explained an Algerian activist who prefers to remain anonymous.
For many Syrian women in Algeria, the gendered experience of displacement – the need to flee the increase in violence and discrimination against women which made living conditions unbearable – has been compounded by the discrimination they now face as women refugees.
Refugee women need more than shelter and food to meet their basic needs. For instance, the cost of disposable sanitary products is significantly high, and pregnancy and post-delivery needs such as breastfeeding also require financial help. Although access to health care is universal in Algeria, Syrian women lack information regarding how to call an ambulance, catch a taxi or even learn their eligibility for health care. According to a young Algerian male volunteer with Nass Elkhir, ‘a women gave birth in Sophia Square where hundreds of Syrian women and children arrived in August 2012. We tried to help her but she refused to go to hospital with us’.
Syrian women also face pervasive stereotypes and specifically gendered forms of discrimination from the host population. When asked about how people think Syrian women without resources can survive, a middle age male joined the conversation to explain, ‘if they are really in need they can marry our young men who are desperate for a stable life, as “our” Algerian girls nowadays have become more and more demanding’. The proposition of such ‘marriages of enjoyment’ is something not uncommon to women the world over who find themselves in a vulnerable position. Often framed as a means of protecting the honour of women who are on their own without a man’s protection, this patriarchal strategy seeks primarily to satisfy the fantasies of men.
Women’s support and livelihoods
In Oran, the local NGO Femmes Algeriennes reclamants leurs droits (FARD) (Algerian Women Claiming their Rights), has only been able to assist 10 Syrian women out of the 2,000 believed to have arrived in the city. This is may be due to the restrictions Algerian authorities inflict on civil society and political activism in general. With the exception of the Red Crescent, there are particular restrictions on the media and those addressing Syrian refugee issues.
Women also do not always make themselves known to the authorities or NGOs, for fear of being sent back to Syria. The UNHCR website states ‘no refugees are deported for reasons of illegal entry or stay in the country’. However a particular story of two Syrian women who have been condemned by a Judge to leave the Algerian territory for having committed the offence of begging on the street, and for having crossed illegally the Algerian/Tunisian border, begs to refute this declaration. It highlights the gap between Algerian domestic laws and its asylum policy.
Even those who arrive with some wealth and education are not above discrimination, they face a different set of barriers. The majority of women who I spoke with had brought money and jewellery with them, and some had sold their properties and transferred funds from Syria. Other sources from Oran’s Universities reported the presence of highly skilled, professional and academic Syrian females who have tried to either apply for jobs or for university in Oran. This category of refugee women encounter the classical three barriers which obstruct their counterparts worldwide. Firstly, the stereotype that all refugees, women in particular, are illiterate, ‘victims’ and a ‘needy’ group; secondly, the non-recognition of their qualifications; and thirdly, the fact that their diplomas are not recognised by the Algerian Ministry of Higher Education.
Childcare is also an issue and those refugees with children of school age are in need of personal networks to enrol their children in school. Although recently in September 2013 the Ministry of National Education made it compulsory for schools to facilitate the registration of Syrian refugees, many Syrian children are still deprived of education. Some local schools require certificates and many are unlikely to possess these due to having had to leave the country with other priorities in mind. This puts more pressure on refugee mothers, particularly if single.
Algeria’s own gendered history
In its efforts to welcome Syrian refugees, Algeria is in the midst of grappling with its own history of gender inequality and violence. Although Algeria is considered to be the ‘Arab spring’ exception, it is nonetheless the case that the country is still suffering as a consequence of the ‘black decade’ of the 90s. Violence against women increased dramatically at the start of the 1990s internal Algerian conflict. Women and children who fled from terrorist attacks in surrounding villages around Oran during the 1990s are still living in a precarious situation due to a lack of social housing, high levels of unemployment and lack of social protection.
The arrival of Syrian women with their families seems to have brought these issues to the surface: ‘Oran is already surcharged with its own problems, we have so many outsiders who arrived during the 1990s, we, the natives, don’t recognise the city anymore it’s so “dirty”. Of course we want to keep our reputation of a welcoming city but it’s all about energy and trust which we lost during the 1990s’, explains an indigenous Oranese young woman who I met at Marche Michelet, a market where the wealthy Oranese go for their shopping. ‘But’, she also insisted, ‘we are Muslims and the Syrian are Muslims too, they are our sisters and we are obliged to help them, I am shocked and feel ashamed to hear about the young Syrian who was raped, but maybe it’s a rumour…’
The future of refugee protection in Algeria
Let it be known that refugee women are actors with a range of gendered coping strategies and solutions. Feminist literature reveals refugee women’s resilience with some degree of intactness, and I have argued elsewhere that many women are strengthened by the inhumane conditions that they have had to endure during their journey to asylum. Refugee women are often ready to re-acquire values and behaviour that war and conflicts may have destroyed for them. Because of the wounds, the physical and emotional plight that refugee women have had to undergo, they may change previous behaviour and lifestyle, thus bringing new meaning to their lives and to their host societies. Who would have heard of Madeleine Albright had she not been offered the right support when she and her family fled from Czechoslovakia back in 1948?
Algeria has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention as well as its 1967 Protocol. Many Palestinians and Chileans who fled persecution and repression found sanctuary in Algeria during the 1970s. More recently, and following the crisis in Mali and the on-going Syrian tragedy, it has become an obligation for the Algerian government to update its asylum policy and work closely with the UNHCR in developing and implementing a national asylum framework which, we hope, will not overlook gender, as is often the case. Algerian citizens, medical professionals, policy makers, rights-advocates, and anyone with the will to provide support for Syrian refugee women, needs to appreciate the strength of their gender identity, their values, their political beliefs and their cultural context. Oran in particular, must do this in order to retrieve its reputation of being the most hospitable and welcoming Algerian City. Meanwhile, the case of the raped Syrian woman will remain unheard, simply classed as ‘a cynical rumour’.
This post was first published December 5th 2013 on openDemocracy 5050.