Home » Research » Displacement of Syrians: implications for a human trafficking crisis

Displacement of Syrians: implications for a human trafficking crisis

TTRP’s inaugural 2014 guest post is written by Stephanie Hepburn. Ms. Hepburn is a journalist and author of HUMAN TRAFFICKING AROUND THE WORLD: HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT.

The New York Times reported in November that with no end in sight to the Syrian conflict and large parts of the nation destroyed, the United Nations, governments and international humanitarian organizations are calling Syria the most challenging refugee crisis in a generation. If accurate, the implications are grave for the human trafficking of this displaced population of 2.4 million and growing.

Over the past seven years I have researched the impact of unrest and displacement on people’s vulnerability to human trafficking. Refugees, having been displaced from their home country, are vulnerable to human trafficking because they face continued uncertainty, financial strain, and lack of legal and/or social inclusion. The lack of inclusion means they have little access to education, health care and housing. It also means they face significant barriers in accessing jobs in the formal labor market — they may be legally prohibited from working in the host nation or are unable to participate as a byproduct of social exclusion. This means that refugees often can only find work in the informal economy. By its very nature the informal sector is unregulated, making it an ideal space for unscrupulous employers to exploit and traffic workers.

Yet it is not just Syrian refugees who have faced displacement and are vulnerable to human trafficking. A less internationally visible population is the 6.5 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Syria. The struggles of IDPs and refugees are remarkably similar. This is because the displacement of being forced from your home, your town, village, or country causes a complete upheaval of lives. The infrastructure in which displaced people once lived either no longer exists or is a shell of what it was. In one section of my book I focused on the relationship between unrest, displacement and human trafficking in Colombia and Iraq, conditions that are quite similar to those in Syria. It is likely that the experiences of displaced people in Syria will be similar to that in Colombia and Iraq, the latter of which has 1.2 million internally displaced people. (The number of internally displaced Iraqis will continue to rise as Iraqi refugees leave Syria and return to Iraq.) On account of unrest in Colombia and Iraq, displaced people had the stability provided by their city or town’s infrastructure ripped from under them. The same is true for their jobs, families, support systems and overall community. We sometimes don’t recognize the importance of community, but it provides an enormous safety net and security. Many of the displaced have lost or have been separated from their families; with the ghosts of their experiences alongside them, they are forced to migrate elsewhere and survive in whatever way they can. In Syria, violence is ongoing, towns are rubble, homes have been destroyed, food prices have risen and access to water and sanitation are increasingly scarce, increasing the risk of illness and starvation. The unemployment rate has increased to 18 percent and in certain areas, such as the city of Raqqa, women are becoming increasingly marginalized. In essence — the displaced have nowhere to escape to in Syria.

Victims of war have generally lost their savings and belongings, and children often become separated from their parents or are orphaned, making them immensely vulnerable to human trafficking for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. (In Syria thousands of children have been orphaned or separated from their parents.) Those children who manage to stay with their parents or family members are also vulnerable to traffickers, who falsely offer to take children to larger cities in or outside the country for better opportunities or to attain an education. In wartime and post-wartime nations, desperation makes parents hope and believe that traffickers will provide a better way of living for their children. In post-wartime Iraq a father sold his 15-year-old daughter into domestic servitude, but she was instead forced into the Dubai sex trade. Her father received a payment of $6,000. Other desperate parents encourage their children to prostitute. One Iraqi mother interviewed by IRIN said that the prostitution of her two young sons (ages 13 and 14) provided an income for the family. “People may find it surprising, but at least we can eat now and I’m proud of them,” she said. In Islamic nations temporary marriage (muta’a) is sometimes used to traffic victims, and Syrian females may already face this in Syria and as refugees. In Iraq temporary marriage was used to traffic victims within Iraq and to Syria, as well as other nations/regions such as Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and Europe.

In wartime and post-wartime areas traffickers pose as aid workers in order to gain the trust of vulnerable families. One trafficker in Iraq explained to the Guardian that the most successful way to target families and get them to sell their children is by studying their living conditions; the traffickers examine the families’ apparent debts and assets. When the traffickers feel that the parents or caretakers are destitute and can’t feed their children, they approach them under the false roles of aid workers. Others wield their positions of power to gain trust and traffic victims. The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq reported that a trafficking ring in Iraq made up of police officers, security officials and members of a political party, the Governorate’s Council, set up a branch of an NGO to lure victims and make the operation appear legitimate.

In Colombia, the instability of civil unrest forced those who lived in affected areas to flee, adding further stress to pre-existing vulnerabilities to human trafficking such as poverty and membership to an already marginalized population. Civil unrest in Colombia has resulted in between 3.6 and 5.2 million IDPs. A new report by the Colombian/Spanish NGO Women’s Link Worldwide cites that the estimated 70,000 Colombians trafficked each year were vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking because of their exposure to economic hardship, armed conflict and displacement. Paramilitary groups wreak violence and havoc on Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, seize land, cause displacement and use children to further their objectives. Children are trafficked for the purpose of sex and forced labor, often forced to be soldiers and workers in the illegal drug trade.

Included under the definition of human trafficking, the trafficking of children for the purpose of soldiering involves the unlawful recruitment or use of children by government forces, paramilitary organizations, or rebel groups — through force, fraud, or coercion — as combatants or for labor or sexual exploitation by armed forces. Children trafficked as soldiers live in constant fear of death. One child told War Child International that as a soldier she experienced war, hunger, and cold and saw people die. “When they said go to the front, you had to go, and it was hard because we had to walk for days without sleep and hardly eating anything. […] I was saddest when I saw friends die…” The experience of this child could easily be that of a child in Syria, where rebel forces in the city of Homs use children to soldier, many of who have been displaced from their homes. The city has been under siege for more than a year and a half and the battle of Homs in March 2012 signified a turning point in the conflict where 50,000 to 60,000 people were displaced. The number of IDPs began to rise exponentially from that point forward.

Among Syrian refugees, there is enormous pressure on children to help provide financial stability to their families. The result is that Syrian child refugees are often the primary breadwinners for their household. In November UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency report The Future of Syria – Refugee Children in Crisis revealed these children — some as young as seven years old — work long hours performing menial labor on farms or in shops for nominal pay. In Jordan close to 50 percent of Syrian refugee households rely in part or completely on the income of children. In the Za’atri refugee camp most of the 680 small shops employ Syrian children. The conditions are sometimes dangerous or exploitative. It is unclear the percentage of forced child labor/human trafficking that is taking place but Nick Grisewood, Chief Technical Advisor for the International Labour Organization project Moving Towards a Child Labour Free Jordan, reports that Syrians in Jordan are being paid below minimum wage or not at all, and that children are used in illegal activities.

In Lebanon it is estimated that roughly 200,000 Syrian refugee children are not in school and in Jordan more than half of the refugee children do not attend school. The fact that many Syrian refugee children are working and not attending school or are too tired to focus on their studies means that these children may not only be vulnerable to human trafficking now but also in the future, since without an education they will be more likely to work in the unregulated informal sector. This may contribute to inter-generational exploitation and, possibly, human trafficking. One child refugee in Jordan said that the lack of education of Syrian refugees is dooming a generation of Syrian children. “Our lives are destroyed,” the child told UNHCR interviewers. “We are not being educated, and without education there is nothing. We’re heading towards destruction.”


  1. […] Stephanie Nawyn’s post, while journalist Stephanie Hepburn scrutinised the relationship between displacement and human trafficking in Syria. A number of our contributors assessed proposed legislation, Professor Nicola Phillips examined the […]

  2. […] The New York Times reported in November that with no end in sight to the Syrian conflict and large parts of the nation destroyed, the United Nations, governments and international humanitarian organizations are calling Syria the most challenging refugee crisis in a generation. If accurate, the implications are grave for the human trafficking of this displaced population of 2.4 million and growing. Continue Reading […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: