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Sexual exploitation of children Turkey refugees

In 2017, major protests occurred after a new Turkish bill was proposed. The bill would have postponed the sentences of child sex offenders if they married their victims. That bill was ultimately withdrawn, but in January 2020, the Turkish government raised this prospect again by announcing plans for a similar new law to be introduced.

In a new research briefing paper, ECPAT International recognises these worrying events in its calls for the government to address the enduring issue of child marriage in the country. Other challenges also highlighted in the paper include conditions facing some child refugees and calling for data on the extent of the sexual exploitation of children to be publicly available, so that children can be properly protected.

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The briefing paper is based on research published in The Economist’s Out of the Shadows Index, which looks at government responses to fighting sexual exploitation of children. Turkey scored 56.7/100, placing the country 18th out of the 60 countries measured.

New Turkish bill could allow child sex offenders to escape punishment by marrying their victims

Despite Turkey mostly having a robust legal framework to address child sexual exploitation in prostitution, child rape and child trafficking, there are still gaps in its existing marriage laws which leave children vulnerable to child marriage.

In 2016, the government introduced a bill that would have proposed postponing the sentences of convicted child abusers if they married their victims, but the bill was withdrawn due to widespread opposition and public pressure. In January 2020, it was announced that a similar bill was being brought forward to the Turkish parliament. Not only would this bill legitimise child marriage and statutory rape, but it would also increase the impunity of the abusers and create the perception that sexually exploiting and abusing a child can be excused.

“The proposed legislation by the Turkish government could seriously worsen the situation of child marriage. The government should withdraw any bill that excuses child abusers by allowing them to marry their victims.”

– Robbert van den Berg, Executive Director at ECPAT International.

In Turkey, the legal age of marriage is 18 years old for both men and women, but at age 17, a child can be permitted to marry as long as they have parental consent. The 2018 Turkish Demographic and Health Survey reported that 2% of Turkish women aged between 20-24 were married by 15 years old, and 1.1% of girls aged between 15-19 reported they were married by the age of 15.

Difficult economic conditions leave refugees vulnerable to exploitation

ECPAT’s briefing paper also references research revealing that Turkey has the highest number of refugees worldwide, with approximately 4 million refugees as of November 2019. 3.6 million came from Syria, and many have faced unimaginable suffering. Due to the economic hardship they face, families sometimes see no alternative than early marriage as a way to provide for children.

“Refugee children are vulnerable to multiple forms of exploitation, including child, early and forced marriage. Despite huge generosity by Turkey to host so many refugees, improvements to social and legal protections are needed to continue and improve their work to protect child refugees in the country.”

– General Coordinator of ECPAT Turkey, Şahin Antakyalıoğlu.

Some refugee families allow children to marry Turkish nationals in return for payment and a reduction on their own financial burden. It has also been reported that criminal networks have taken advantage of this vulnerability by pressuring Syrian women and girls into forms of sexual exploitation.

Can children be properly protected when there is little information on how they are exploited?

There is extremely little data publicly available on the sexual exploitation of children via online methods, through prostitution, and in the context of travel and tourism. On child victims of trafficking, the data that is available to the public does not distinguish different types of trafficking that children can face. For example, if it is for the purposes of sexual exploitation or for other forms of exploitation such as forced labour, slavery or organ removal. Because of this, it is difficult to accurately assess how and how many children are affected and what is needed from civil society organisations and authorities to develop effective prevention programmes and sufficient responses to affected children.

Since 2002, The Turkish Statistical Institute has released numbers on how many children have married annually. It is unclear whether the figures they release also include Turkey’s refugees—one of the most vulnerable populations to child, early and forced marriage.

ECPAT names concrete improvements for the way forward

The ECPAT briefing paper released today shares a number of concrete measures to better protect children:

  • Turkey amends its criminal legislation to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 years old for boys and girls with no exceptions
  • Turkish bill that would excuse child abusers if they marry their victims are withdrawn
  • Turkey improves social and legal protections for the child refugee population hosted in the country
  • Turkey increases educational opportunities for refugee children, particularly girls, to reduce the likelihood of being coerced into situations of sexual exploitation
  • Publish clear national action plans that address all forms of child sexual abuse and exploitation
  • Collect and publicly publish detailed data on all forms of child sexual abuse and exploitation

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