Has the conflict in Syria increased human trafficking?

by Claire Healey

© Claire Healey

Claire Healy is Research Officer at the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) and the author of Targeting Vulnerabilities: The Impact of the Syrian War and Refugee Situation on Trafficking in Persons (2015). She has also been working on trafficking in West Africa since 2013 and coordinated research projects on trafficking for the Brazilian government, and on child begging for the European Commission. She has a PhD in Migration History from the National University of Ireland, Galway.

The sheer number of displaced people is mind-boggling. Over two-and-a-half million people have fled the war in Syria and sought refuge in Turkey under the Turkish Government’s Temporary Protection Regime. At least two million others have fled from Syria to Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. More than six million people are internally displaced inside the war-torn country. In the chaos of violence, displacement, crossing borders and trying to survive in a new country, opportunities arise for traffickers and exploiters to take advantage of vulnerable people.
Throughout 2015, ICMPD’s team of researchers investigated the effects of the Syrian conflict on trafficking in persons in the five countries with the highest numbers of displaced people: Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The research was conducted in the context of a project to increase and enhance knowledge on the effects of the Syrian conflict on trafficking, and to thereby contribute to improving the response by relevant actors operating in the countries under study. It is funded by the US Department of State. The resulting study, Targeting Vulnerabilities, focuses on the phenomenon of human trafficking as defined in international law, and as it affects people displaced within and from Syria.

© Oxfam Itlay, Flickr

The study analyses available secondary sources and the results of field research in the countries under study, triangulating these sources to assess their validity. Due to the logistical difficulties of carrying out field research with a sufficiently representative sample among refugees, displaced people and vulnerable groups themselves, because of the diversity of groups affected and high numbers involved, and due to ethical issues in relation to conducting research with vulnerable people, information was not obtained directly from these populations. Therefore the results of the research should be viewed with the caveat that trafficked people, Syrian refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were not themselves directly consulted for this study, but rather organisations, institutions and individiuals at one remove from them were interviewed, on the basis that these interviewees have direct contact with the affected groups.
When adults are not authorised to work regularly, or cannot find decent work, and children cannot go to school, or have no school place, the situation becomes desperate. In some cases this leads to trafficking for labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, forced marriage and exploitation through begging. Vulnerable girls, boys, women and girls also become caught up in the conflict itself, exploited in a forced marriage to a member of an armed group or forced to fight for one of the groups. Yet the challenge in such a situation of conflict and displacement is that human trafficking is only one of a number of human rights abuses that people are vulnerable to. So how do we ensure that people who have already been trafficked are protected and have access to justice? And, at the same time, how can we also address the critical humanitarian situation in order to make people more resilient to human rights abuses, including trafficking?  

Trafficking is low level, and takes place within the same country

We found that the challenges of survival in this context make people more vulnerable to many different human rights abuses, including exploitation and trafficking. But the indications we found do not correspond to the popular image in the media, and often also among policy-makers, of trafficking being carried out by highly organised international crime bosses. Although there are some cases of organised cross-border trafficking, notably by the Syrian regime, Da’ish (ISIS) and other armed groups and organized networks, what is far more common is what we term “low-level” exploitation and trafficking. This is when children and adults are exploited by members of their own immediate or extended family, or by other people who are also themselves in a desperate situation.
The issue of what drives the traffickers is a very delicate one. Of course some of those profiting from people’s misery are hardened criminals, but many others are in a situation of misery themselves. As difficult as this may seem to comprehend, it must be acknowledged that there is a difference between a prosperous and comfortable man selling his daughter for profit into a forced marriage, and a desperate and impoverished man who cannot feed and clothe his children or put a roof over their heads subjecting one of his daughters to a forced marriage, in order for his other children to survive. This raises the question of how best to prevent such trafficking and to protect those involved. When people who are themselves in a desperate situation exploit others, traditional responses to human trafficking like transnational investigation and criminal prosecution may not be the best solution. Of course, in both cases, being subjected to trafficking and exploitation is a serious human rights violation for the trafficked people, but the response should be distinct depending on the socioeconomic conditions of the trafficker.

© Lance Shields, Flickr

And even if the victims of trafficking may be Syrians in a foreign country – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq – they are not generally trafficked from one country to another. In fact, the trafficking process usually begins when they are already displaced as refugees abroad, or internally displaced within Syria. It is often the difficulties of survival in a displacement situation that drive their vulnerabilities to trafficking. This is particularly in evidence in cases of trafficking for forced marriage, sexual exploitation by means of a temporary forced marriage, child labour exploitation in agriculture and exploitation of children through begging. So what we see is the phenomenon of internal trafficking, which does not involve the crossing of an international border. Although there are some cases of both low-level and more organised and sophisticated trafficking from one country to another, most trafficking takes place at a low level, within the same country.

Viable alternatives for survival and regular employment

So the most important response is clear: provide people displaced by the conflict with viable alternatives so that they are not reduced to these desperate conditions. For this to work, three aspects are essential: foreign and national investment in infrastructure and employment opportunities in Syria’s neighbouring countries; sufficient funding for UN, national and local humanitarian aid programmes; and a significant increase in resettlement of refugees from this region to the European Union and other safe countries. In terms of protecting children and adults who have already been trafficked, agencies, organisations and individuals working directly with refugee populations may be well-trained on refugee issues, but they are not always prepared when it comes to identifying and referring trafficked people. Similarly, anti-trafficking practitioners do not always fully understand refugee situations and the rights of displaced people. If we really want to protect trafficked refugees and internally displaced people, this “silo” mentality needs to change (10 March 2016).

Further reading

The full Study Targeting Vulnerabilities, a 30-page Briefing Paper, and a 5-page Policy Brief, are all available to download in English at: www.icmpd.org They will also soon be available in Arabic, Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish (7 March 2016). 

ILO Jordan (2015) Access to work for Syrian refugees in Jordan: A discussion paper on labour and refugee laws and policies. ILO, Amman.

Tamkeen (2015) An Analytic Review of Jordanian Legislation Related to Anti-Trafficking. Tamkeen, Amman.

"ISIS enshrines a theology of rape: Claiming the Quran’s support, the Islamic State codifies sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria and uses the practice as a recruiting tool", by Rukmini Callimachi, 13 August 2015, New York Times.

Amnesty International (2014) Struggling to Survive: Refugees from Syria in Turkey.  Amnesty International, London.

Human Rights Council (2014) Oral Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic A/HRC/26/CRP.2. OHCHR, Geneva.

NRC (2014) The Consequences of Limited Legal Status for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.  NRC Lebanon, Beirut.

Forced Migration Review, No. 47, September 2014.

Harroff-Tavel, Hélène & Nasri, Alix (2013) Tricked and Trapped: Human Trafficking in the Middle East. ILO in collaboration with Heartland Alliance International. ILO Regional Office for the Arab States, Beirut.

ICMPD (2013). Trafficking in Human Beings in Lebanon. ICMPD, Vienna.

Save the Children (2013) Childhood under fire, the impact of two years of conflict in Syria. Save the Children, London.

Torres, Estrella (2012) Syria: Domestic Worker Elena’s Dramatic Escape home to the Philippines: Thousands of migrant workers still trapped in the conflict. 5 August 2012, International Trade Union Confederation News.