ZAATARI, Jordan — Walk among the plastic tents in one corner of this sprawling, dust-swept desert camp packed with Syrian refugees, and a young woman in a white headscarf signals.
"Come in, you'll have a good time," suggests Nada, 19, who escaped from the southern border town of Daraa into Jordan several months ago. Her father, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and a traditional red-checkered headscarf, sits outside under the scorching sun, watching silently.
Nada prices her body at $7, negotiable. She says she averages $70 a day.
Several tents away, a clean-shaven, tattooed young Syrian man, who says he was a barber back in the city of Idlib, offers his wife. "You can have her all day for $70," he promises. He says he never imagined he would be selling his own wife, but he needs to send money back to his parents and in-laws in Syria, about $200 a month.
As the flow of Syrian refugees into neighboring Jordan is sharply increasing, so is their desperation. With Syria torn apart by civil war and its economy deeply damaged, the total number of people who have fled and are seeking aid has now passed a million, the United Nations said this week. More than 418,000 of the refugees are in Jordan, which recorded about 50,000 new arrivals in February alone, the highest influx to date.
Scores of the Syrian women who escaped to Jordan are turning to prostitution, some forced or sold into it, even by their families. Some women refugees are highly vulnerable to exploitation by pimps or traffickers, particularly since a significant number fled without their husbands – sometimes with their children – and have little or no source of income.
Eleven Syrian prostitutes who talked to the AP in the refugee camp, a border town and three Jordanian cities asked to remain anonymous, citing shame and fear of prosecution by police in Jordan. Prostitution in Jordan is illegal and punishable by up to three years in jail, and foreign women and men found guilty can be deported.
The majority of the 11 women say they turned to prostitution out of a desperate need for money.
It's impossible to pin down how many Syrian refugees are now working as prostitutes in Jordan, but their presence is inescapable. Syrian women outnumbered those from any other country in several brothels, and in a couple of cases, virtually all the prostitutes were Syrian. Pimps say they have more women who are Syrian than of other nationalities.
The influx of Syrian women has been noticed by the competition: A 37-year-old Jordanian woman running a chain of at least seven brothels in northern Jordan complained that they were taking over the business.
"Men have been asking for Syrian women because they like the blond and light-skinned among them, and the chances that they may create problems, like blackmailing married Jordanian men, are almost nonexistent," she says. "My policy has been, you either befriend them so that they'd work with you, or get rid of them by tipping police about them."
Jordanian police also say dozens of Syrian women now work in prostitution. On one day last month they arrested 11 women, eight of them Syrian, at a coffee shop in Irbid for alleged "indecent public behavior."
Despite strong traditions against sex outside marriage, prostitution takes place in the Arab world, as in other regions, though it is largely more hidden. While there may be known cruising areas in cities, overt red-light districts are rare, and some prostitutes even wear face veils to hide their activities. Arrangements can be made by phone, and short-term or informal marriages are sometimes used as a cover for prostitution or sex trafficking.
Particularly sensitive are the charges of prostitution within the Zaatari camp, housing some 120,000 refugees, which is funded by the U.N. and hosted by Jordan, a largely conservative Muslim nation. The camp gives refugees tents or pre-fab shelters and rationed supplies of staple foods, but conditions in the desert are bleak and aid money is running short.
"We have seen no evidence of prostitution in the camp, but we have heard rumors of it," said Andrew Harper, chief of the U.N. refugee commission in Jordan. "Given the vulnerability of women, the camp's growing population and the lack of resources, I'm not surprised that some may opt for such actions."
Residents at the camp complain that the unlit toilets become brothels at night, and aid workers say dozens of babies are born without documentation for their fathers, possibly because of prostitution. Mohammed Abu Zureiq, 50, a camp janitor from Daraa, says along with prostitution, some women at the camp are sold outright.
"My neighbor sold his daughter for $2,000 to a Saudi man his age," he says.
Jordanian police guard the gates but seldom patrol inside, so there is little risk for prostitutes and clients, sometimes other refugees. It is not clear whether the police themselves patronize the prostitutes or arrange for meetings outside the camp, and about 300 refugees rioted two weeks ago over rumors that Jordanian guards had sexually harassed women refugees. Jordanian police did not respond to written and verbal AP requests for comment.
Ghassan Jamous, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army in northern Jordan, acknowledges there is prostitution at the camp, as in any city with a large population, but says it is not widespread. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the belief still runs strong that prostitution is a woman's choice, even under dire circumstances.
"I insist that the Syrian women in Zaatari and elsewhere are practicing prostitution because they like it or got used to it, not for money, or for the sake of their poor families," Jamous says.
Sammar, a 24-year-old from the Syrian capital of Damascus, tells a different story.
She was laid off from her work at a clothing shop because of dwindling business, she says, and came to Jordan looking for better opportunities. But she could not find what she calls "a decent job" as a telephone operator, hotel receptionist or waitress.
Now she walks a main city boulevard in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid at sunset with four other Syrian girls to pick up men. The clientele ranges from teenagers on foot to older men in elegant sedans, some with Saudi or other Gulf Arab license plates, who circle the girls before moving in.
"It's a dangerous business. I'm risking my life, but what can I do?" laments Sammar, a green-eyed brunette in tight leather pants, a slim white shirt and fake silver jewelry. "My parents are sick and can't work. I'm the oldest among their seven children and I have to work to send them money back in Syria."
Around half of Syrians may now live in poverty, compared with 11.9 percent recorded in recent years, according to the Brookings Institution. The price of food has shot up 60 percent in the past year. Meanwhile, farming plummeted by 80 percent last year because of the fighting, especially in southern farmland bordering Jordan, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Among the casualties is an 18-year-old native of Homs, Syria, who arrived in Zaatari camp last summer. Soon after, her father married her for $1,000 to a 22-year-old Jordanian man who frequently visited the camp. The husband then handed her over to a brothel in Irbid, where she is among 20 women pimped out by a man who calls himself Faroun, Arabic for Pharaoh.
Her parents went back to Syria in January, leaving her alone in Jordan.
"Now I have nobody to turn to," says the tiny, soft-spoken young woman, no more than a girl, who looks away without answering when asked about prostitution. The AP does not name victims of sexual abuse.
Her husband, who identifies himself as Ali, acknowledges cheerfully that he forces her to have sex with him and with others, for money.
"I've got nothing to lose," he says, smiling. "I will eventually divorce her and she'll end up going home."