As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Syria, and traffickers exploit Syrian victims abroad. The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate amid the ongoing conflict with sub-state armed groups of varying ideologies exerting control over wide geographic swathes of the country’s territory. As of March 2018, human rights groups and international organizations estimate more than 500,000 people have been killed since the beginning of protests against the Bashar al-Assad regime in March 2011. More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced; as of February 2019, more than five million have fled to neighboring countries and, as of December 2018, approximately 6.2 million are internally displaced. Syrians that remain in the country and those living as refugees in neighboring countries are extremely vulnerable to traffickers. Syrian children are reportedly vulnerable to forced early marriages—which can lead to commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor—and children displaced within the country continue to be subjected to forced labor, particularly by organized begging rings.
While ISIS has lost the majority of the Syrian territory it once controlled, throughout 2018 it continued to force local Syrian girls and women in ISIS-controlled areas into marriages with its fighters and it routinely subjected women and girls from minority groups into forced marriages, domestic servitude, systematic rape, and other forms of sexual violence. Incidents of human trafficking increased and trafficking victims were trapped in Syria, particularly when ISIS consolidated its control of the eastern governorates of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour in 2014. In June of that year, ISIS announced the establishment of an Islamic “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. In December 2014, ISIS publicly released guidelines on how to capture, forcibly hold, and sexually abuse female slaves. As reported by an international organization in 2015, ISIS militants’ system of organized sexual slavery and forced marriage is a central element of the terrorist group’s ideology. In 2016, ISIS began moving thousands of abducted women and girls from the Yezidi minority group in Iraq into Syria ahead of Iraqi government forces’ push to drive ISIS out of Mosul, Iraq. As of the end of 2018, 2,500 Yezidi women and girls remain missing; reports indicate some of these women and girls remained with ISIS in eastern Syria. Additionally, following the February 2015 ISIS incursion into Assyrian villages in the northeastern province of al-Hasaka, it captured as many as 30 Assyrian Christian women and forced them into sexual slavery.
The recruitment and use of children in combat in Syria remains commonplace, and since the beginning of 2018 international observers reported a steady increase in incidents of recruitment and use by armed groups. Syrian government forces, pro-regime militias, and armed non-state actors, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and FSA-affiliated groups, Kurdish forces, ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra—the al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria—recruit and use boys and girls as child soldiers. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have also used children as human shields, suicide bombers, snipers, and executioners. Militants also use children for forced labor and as informants, exposing them to retaliation and extreme punishment. Some armed groups fighting for the Syrian government, such as Hezbollah, and pro-regime militias known as the National Defense Forces (NDF), or “shabiha,” forcibly recruit children as young as six years old. ISIS actively deploys children—some as young as eight years old—in hostilities, including coercing children to behead Syrian government soldiers; the terrorist group has deliberately targeted children for indoctrination and used schools for military purposes, endangering children and preventing their access to education. Before its liberation in October 2017, ISIS operated at least three child training camps in Raqqa, where it forced children to attend indoctrination seminars and promised children salaries, mobile phones, weapons, a martyr’s place in paradise, and the “gift” of a wife upon joining the terrorist group. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) continue to recruit, train, and use, boys and girls as young as 12 years old; international observers reported in 2017 and 2018 that YPG forces recruit children from displacement camps in northeast Syria. Several credible sources continue to widely report that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iranian Basij Resistance Force (Basij) actively recruit and use—through force or coercive means—Afghan children and adults, Afghan migrant and refugee men and children living in Iran, as well as Iranian children, to fight in IRGC-led and -funded Shia militias deployed to Syria. Extremist groups, including ISIS, reportedly forced, coerced, or fraudulently recruited some foreigners, including migrants from Central Asia, to join their ranks.
The Syrian refugee population is highly vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor in neighboring countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. International organizations continue to report a high number of child and early marriages of Syrian girls among refugee populations, which increases their vulnerability to trafficking. Syrian refugee women and girls are also vulnerable to forced or “temporary marriages”—for the purpose of prostitution and other forms of exploitation—and sex trafficking in refugee camps, Jordan, and cities in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), including Sulaimaniya. Illicit prostitution rings in Turkey and Lebanon compel Syrian refugee women and girls into sex trafficking. In Turkey, some female Syrian refugees are reportedly exploited after accepting fraudulent job offers to work in hair salons. In Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, Syrian refugee children continue to engage in street begging or peddling goods, some of which may be forced or coerced. Syrian children are also observed working in Turkey’s agricultural sector and informally in textile workshops and the service sector where they experience long working hours, low wages, and poor working conditions; children in these sectors may be vulnerable to forced labor. In Jordan and Lebanon, traffickers force Syrian refugee children to work in agriculture alongside their families; in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Syrian gangs force refugee men, women, and children to work in agriculture under harsh conditions, including physical abuse, with little to no pay. LGBTI persons among the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon are reportedly vulnerable to sex trafficking by Lebanese pimps.