A 15-year-old Syrian refugee in Belgium went on a hunger strike for a week after being separated from her 18-year-old husband, according to Belgian media reports. Her fast ended Friday after talks with social workers and other children housed in the asylum center, reported De Standaard newspaper.
Neither the girl nor her husband was identified by name. The separation was enforced because of Belgium's own policies against child marriage. The girl was barred from seeing her husband inside the center, but she could meet him outside and talk to him over the phone.
Syrian law sets the minimum age of marriage at 17, but religious leaders are allowed to make exceptions starting at age 13. A 2014 survey of Syrian refugees in Lebanon carried out by the United Nations warned that early marriage was becoming increasingly prevalent, "with 18 percent of surveyed female youth aged 15-18 years being married." Some UNICEF officials suggested these unions were a sort of "coping mechanism" in a time of conflict.
But in asylum centers in Europe, the presence of child brides is raising thorny questions. Are European nations obliged to recognize their marriage? In instances of forced marriages, should prosecutions follow?
"Child marriage is against our principles," Theo Francken, Belgium's state secretary for asylum and migration policy, told De Morgen newspaper.
Official figures indicate some 17 child brides arrived among the refugee influx last year and another seven this year. Last year, asylum centers next door in the Netherlands were reportedly housing 20 child brides between ages 13 and 15. "But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg, because refugees are not always reporting this," Francken told reporters.
Belgium has had wider concerns over the prevalence of forced child marriages among some of the country's communities. Between 2010 and 2013, the police registered at least 56 complaints about a forced marriage. In 2014, NGOs attempted to spread awareness against the practice through a moving video campaign featuring the testimony of children.
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