Since March 2011, the Syrian government has deployed its security forces to violently repress anti-government demonstrators. At the end of this reporting period, UNHCR estimated that over 60,000 people have died since the protests began. Due to the consistent lack of security and continued inaccessibility of the majority of the country, it is not possible to conduct a thorough analysis of the impact of the ongoing conflict on the scope and magnitude of Syria’s human trafficking situation. Reports indicate that an unknown number of trafficking victims have fled the country as a result of widespread violence that has plagued many cities, including the capital Damascus, and major cities such as Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Dara’a, and Idlib, as well as a devastated economy; however, according to international organizations, some trafficking victims remain trapped in Syria.
Prior to the political uprising and violent unrest, Syria was principally a destination country for women and children subjected to forced labor or sex trafficking. Thousands of women—the majority from Indonesia, the Philippines, Somalia, and Ethiopia—were recruited by employment agencies to work in Syria as domestic servants, but were subsequently subjected to conditions of forced labor by their employers. Some of these women were confined to the private residences in which they worked, and contrary to Syrian law, most had their passports confiscated by their employer or the labor recruitment agency. Contracts signed in the worker’s country of origin were often changed upon arrival in Syria, contributing to the worker’s vulnerability to forced labor. At the end of the reporting period, uncorroborated media reports suggested that undocumented Filipina domestic workers continue to be sent to Syria after transiting Dubai; these workers continue to be particularly susceptible to conditions of forced labor. In September 2012, the media reported that the Government of the Philippines was seeking the return of more than 5,000 women and girls from Syria, but many were trapped in cities under siege such as Homs and Hama. As in the previous reporting period, the Government of Ethiopia’s ban on its citizens accepting employment in Syria did not stop the flow of workers into the country. Some Iraqi refugees reportedly contract their daughters to work as maids in Syrian households, where they may be raped, forced into prostitution, or subjected to forced labor. At the end of the reporting period, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, UNICEF, and an international NGO corroborated local media reports that the Syrian armed forces and opposition forces are using Syrian children, some as young as eight years old, as soldiers in combat and support roles and as human shields. The UN reported in February 2013 that Syrian government forces seized children under 18 years old at checkpoints, and government-affiliated militia used sectarian affiliation, kinship systems, and cash to fill their ranks; these methods may have led to the recruitment of child soldiers. Children were also used as informers; government, government-affiliated, and opposition forces punished “informants” with judicial or extrajudicial execution. Anti-governmental opposition armed groups also enlisted children under 18 years old into their ranks. Some armed groups used children as prison guards; an uncorroborated video allegedly showed a child associated with an armed group behead a prisoner. A Syrian-based organization also documented the deaths of at least 17 children who fought for the Free Syrian Army.
Traffickers prey on Syria’s large Iraqi refugee population, with some Iraqi women and girls exploited by their families or by criminal gangs; victims were sent to work in nightclubs, placed into temporary “marriages” to men for the sole purpose of prostitution, or sold to pimps who “rent” them out for longer periods of time. Some Iraqi parents reportedly abandoned their daughters at the Iraqi side of the border with Syria with the expectation that traffickers would provide forged documents for them to enter Syria and work in a nightclub. In other instances, refugees’ children remained in Syria while their parents left the country in search of improved economic circumstances, leaving the children vulnerable to trafficking. Iraqi women deported from Syria on prostitution charges are vulnerable to being trafficked or retrafficked by criminal gangs operating along the border. With the continued political unrest, many Iraqi refugees that remained in Syria reported being unable to find work in the informal sector. A number of these refugees were coerced into taking part in anti-government protests, and therefore harassed or subjected to abuse, all of which increase this vulnerable population’s susceptibility to trafficking and place their lives continuously at risk.
Syria has been a transit country for Iraqi women and girls, as well as southeast Asians and east Africans who have been subjected to conditions of forced prostitution in Europe, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon. Prior to recent unrest, women from Eastern Europe—particularly Ukraine—Somalia, and Morocco were recruited legally as cabaret dancers in Syria; some “entertainers” were subsequently forced into prostitution after their employers confiscated their passports and confined them to their hotels. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some economically desperate Syrian children continued to be subjected to conditions of forced labor within the country, particularly by organized street begging rings. Some Syrian women in Lebanon may be forced to engage in street prostitution and small numbers of Syrian girls are reportedly brought to Lebanon for the purpose of prostitution, including through the guise of early marriage. The number of Syrian adults who are reportedly subjected to forced labor as low-skilled workers in Qatar and Kuwait increased from previous years, likely due to efforts to escape the ongoing violence in Syria. According to regional newspapers, the UN, and civil society organizations, teenage Syrian refugees who fled to neighboring states are being forced into “pleasure marriages” (Nikah al-Mut’ah), a cover for legalized prostitution. The high level of violence has led Syrians and foreign migrant workers to flee the country by the hundreds of thousands, and a large number of these individuals are then vulnerable to human trafficking. An international organization observed heightened vulnerability to trafficking of Syrian refugees in the Domiz refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, including women entering into commercially dependent relationships with Iraqi men; men entering into employment without contracts; and increased pressure on children to engage in begging.
The Government of Syria does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. The government did not demonstrate evidence of increasing efforts to investigate and punish trafficking offenses, provide protective services to victims, widely inform the public about human trafficking, or provide much needed anti-trafficking training to law enforcement and social welfare officials. Furthermore, the government continued to allocate the majority of its time and resources towards continuing to violently suppress popular protest and limit freedoms of speech, assembly, and mobility, further endangering trafficking victims and other vulnerable populations that remained in the country.
Recommendations for Syria: Assist governments attempting to retrieve victims of trafficking in contacting and extracting their citizens from Syria; implement the comprehensive anti-trafficking law through increased investigations and prosecutions of trafficking offenders; provide training on human trafficking to police, immigration officials, labor, and social welfare officials, including those assigned to the anti-trafficking directorate; ensure that the anti-trafficking directorate is fully operational, continue to assign a significant number of female police officers to the directorate, and provide specific training on how to receive cases and interview potential trafficking victims with appropriate sensitivity; launch a nationwide anti-trafficking public awareness campaign, particularly highlighting the appropriate treatment of domestic workers under Syrian law; establish policies and procedures for law enforcement officials to proactively identify and interview potential trafficking victims, and transfer them to the care of relevant organizations; make efforts to stop the forcible recruitment of child soldiers and provide protection services to demobilized children; designate an official coordinating body or mechanism to facilitate anti-trafficking communication and coordination among the relevant ministries, law enforcement entities, international organizations, and NGOs; and accede to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.
The government did not make progress in addressing human trafficking through law enforcement measures during the reporting period. The increasingly violent unrest during the reporting period undercut any anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts, and inadequate law enforcement training remained a significant impediment to identifying and prosecuting trafficking crimes in Syria. In June 2011, the Syrian government issued an executive order outlining the implementation of its comprehensive anti-trafficking law, Decree No. 3, which provides a legal foundation for prosecuting trafficking offenses and protecting victims, but does not provide a clear definition of human trafficking. This law prescribes a minimum punishment of seven years’ imprisonment, a penalty that is sufficiently stringent though not commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Activities by the Ministry of Interior’s 200-person specialized anti-trafficking directorate were effectively suspended, despite its 2010 mandate to investigate cases, raise public awareness, cooperate with foreign entities, train law enforcement, and track and annually report on the government’s anti-trafficking efforts. The directorate continued to lack a coordination role and provided no information on its investigations or prosecutions of suspected trafficking offenses. In previous reporting periods, there were reports of collusion between low-level police officers and traffickers, particularly regarding the trafficking of women in prostitution. During the last year, there was no evidence that the government addressed alleged complicity in trafficking-related offenses through investigations.
The government made no discernible efforts to identify and protect victims of trafficking during the reporting period. By the end of the reporting period, the Government of the Philippines reported that over 100 Filipinos were entering Syria each month, and many were trafficked to Homs and Hama, where they were then trapped by the ongoing siege. While the Philippine embassy continued its attempts from the previous reporting period to negotiate with the employers of at least 95 domestic workers for their release, there were no reports that the Government of Syria assisted the embassy in these efforts to identify and protect the workers, including possible victims of domestic servitude. As in the previous reporting period, the government did not refer any trafficking victims to NGO-operated shelters. The government also failed to institute any systematic procedures for the identification, interview, and referral of trafficking victims. As a result, victims of trafficking may have been arrested and charged with prostitution or violating immigration laws before being punished or deported. The government failed to take measures to protect children from being forcibly recruited as soldiers and human shields. The government neither encouraged victims to assist in investigations or prosecutions of their traffickers nor provided foreign victims with legal alternatives to their removal to countries in which they may face hardship or retribution.
During the past year, the government made no observable efforts to prevent trafficking or to raise awareness among the general public or government officials. The Syrian government’s anti-trafficking unit reportedly continued to operate a 2011-instituted hotline for reporting suspected cases of human trafficking, but made no efforts to raise public awareness of the service. The government provided no information on the number of calls the hotline received. The status of the government’s national plan of action against trafficking, which was drafted in early 2010, is unknown. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts or forced labor. Syria is not a party to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.