A U.N. official on Tuesday underscored the growing problem of "survival sex" (prostitution) among Iraqi women refugees, as advocates pressed the world community to help share the burden of sheltering those who have fled the war in Iraq.
Erika Feller, an assistant high commissioner for protection at the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said attention must be paid to the plight of women refugees in countries neighboring Iraq, particularly Syria.
Feller, who recently visited Syria, singled out the resurgence of problems such as "weekend marriages," a euphemism for prostitution.
Families make available young girls for "a traditional marriage ceremony" for the weekend to men who are prepared to pay and "the divorce takes place on Sunday in accordance to traditional practices," she explained.
"So it's not, formally speaking, labeled as prostitution but it is basically survival sex," she told reporters, noting that those involved, particularly single women heading households, had often no other choice to feed their children.
"Survival sex is an issue which is part of the protection problems we have to address," she said.
Meanwhile Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group, urged Washington lead donor efforts to aid to host countries faced with large influxes of Iraqis.
The increased restrictions on Iraqi refugees "are at least partially a response to the lack of support received from the United States and other donor governments, to lessen the tremendous burden that the host countries are assuming," it said.
It called on Washington to end its diplomatic embargo of Damascus and to immediately appoint an ambassador-level diplomat to be based in Syria.
It also suggested that the United States and other donors earmark bilateral aid to countries sheltering large numbers of Iraqi refugees, either directly or through a trust fund established by the United Nations or the Arab League.
While Syria has been "a very generous country" in accepting Iraqi refugees, Feller noted that other countries are increasingly placing restrictions on their entry.
She stressed "the singular importance of burden-sharing with countries in the region," meaning that the rest of the international community must help resettle those refugees.
Biggest Mideast exodus since 1948
According to UNHCR, 4.2 million Iraqis have fled their country since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The refugee agency, which called the exodus of Iraqis the biggest wave of displacement in the Middle East since 1948, estimates that 750,000 of them have moved to Jordan.
The issue went beyond assistance -- provision of food and other relief aid -- and also involved protection of the refugees who face neglect, harassment and, at times, exploitation, she said.
She pointed out that there were close to 1.4 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, describing them as "a very vulnerable population."
Iraqi refugees have also taken refuge in Lebanon, Egypt and Iran.