As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Iraq, and traffickers exploit victims from Iraq abroad. The violent conflict with ISIS exacerbated the population’s vulnerability to trafficking, in particular women and children, although the government’s territorial defeat of the terrorist group, announced December 9, 2017, has improved conditions for Iraqi civilians. However, insecurity remained in many areas, including those liberated from ISIS rule. Since January 2014, more than five million Iraqis have been displaced, with approximately 1.2 million still displaced as of the end of 2020; about 80 percent have been displaced for more than three years, placing them at continued risk of exploitation. Many of those that are displaced are female heads of household vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse due to their perceived affiliation with ISIS. In addition, more than 245,000 Syrian refugees remained displaced in Iraq, the vast majority in the IKR. With the defeat of the ISIS physical caliphate, the reported incidence of these violations has diminished. Between 2014 and 2018, ISIS militants kidnapped and held captive thousands of women and children from a wide range of ethnic and religious groups, especially Yezidis, and sold them to ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS fighters subjected them to forced marriage, sexual slavery, rape, and domestic servitude. ISIS maintained an organized system to buy and sell women and girls for sexual slavery, including sales contracts notarized by ISIS-run courts. Media have reported ISIS sold some captives to wealthy individuals in Gulf countries, and reports suggested some Yezidi captives were moved to Syria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. IKR-based civil society organizations also reported in 2018 that ISIS members and supporters kidnapped Yezidi children for exploitation in Turkey. ISIS reportedly kidnapped 120 Turkmen children in 2014; they have reportedly been sold multiple times for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and only 20 of the kidnapped children were rescued by the end of 2018. Throughout 2015-2019, thousands of women and children escaped ISIS captivity—many of whom were pregnant as a result of rape, forced marriage, and sex trafficking; these women and girls, including IDPs among this population, remain highly vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, including re-trafficking. Some Yezidi women and girls reportedly reside in Iraqi IDP camps or Al-Hol camp in Syria where they continue to live with Sunni families that formerly exploited them under ISIS rule. As of February 2021, the KRG reported 2,872 Yezidis—including adults and children—remain missing. Some reports indicate the missing women and girls remain with ISIS in eastern Syria and Turkey or have been exploited in other parts of the region, Europe, or Asia.
Children remain vulnerable to forcible recruitment and use by multiple armed groups operating in Iraq, including—but not limited to—ISIS, the PMF, tribal forces, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and Iran-backed militias. Despite the defeat of the physical caliphate, ISIS continues to abduct and forcibly recruit and use children in combat and support roles, including as human shields, informants, bomb makers, executioners, and suicide bombers; some of these children were as young as eight years old and some were mentally disabled. Multiple sources report the PKK and People’s Protection Units (YPG) operating in the IKR and Sinjar continued to recruit and use children. In 2021, an unverified source reported that the PKK recruited dozens of children to prepare them for combat, including children from Kirkuk, Iraq. Local NGOs reported in 2018 that Yezidi militias in Sinjar recruited approximately 10 to 20 Yezidi boys. NGO and local government contacts confirmed that hundreds of Yezidi children have been recruited by the PKK-aligned Yezidi Civil Protection Units (YPS) and other PKK-affiliated militias. In 2018, civil society organizations reported the PKK recruited and trained children from Sinjar, Makhmour, and other locations, and sent them to bases in Sinjar, Turkey, and the Qandil Mountains between Iraq and Iran.
Since 2015, NGOs have reported some non-compliant, Iran-aligned PMF units recruit, use, and provide military training to children, though the incidence of these reports has declined with the defeat of ISIS’s territorial presence in Iraq. The number of incidents of child soldier recruitment and use continues to decline, according to an international organization in 2019. In 2018 and 2019, NGOs alleged that some PMF-affiliated militias, including Iranian-backed Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN) and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), recruited boys younger than the age of 18 to fight in Syria and Yemen. In 2017, reports also indicated both the AAH and Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) militias recruited and used child soldiers. Some of the forces in the HHN, AAH, and KH militias operated under the umbrella of the PMF, but they generally operate outside of the command and control of the Iraqi government. Civil society organizations and local contacts reported in 2017 that posters commemorating children who died while fighting for Shia militias were commonplace in Shia-majority areas of Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq. Most of the children who were celebrated for fighting allegedly fought for brigades of the AAH and KH militias. According to the PMF official social media site and posters in the street in mid-2017, the PMF offered military training courses to children and youth ages 15-25. In 2015 and 2016, multiple sources reported factions of the PMF recruited and used children in operations in Fallujah and other areas of the country, while PMF-affiliated media celebrated the service and sacrifice of child soldiers. Credible reporting in 2017 indicated Sunni tribal militias recruited boys out of IDP camps, some of whom received military training. In August 2016, an international NGO reported that Sunni tribal militias affiliated with the PMF recruited at least seven children from the Debaga IDP camp in northern Iraq; witness accounts reported that members of the ISF facilitated the recruitment of children from the camp. In addition, international observers reported the ISF used three children at a checkpoint in early 2019.
Refugees and IDPs face heightened risk of forced labor and sex trafficking due to their economic and social vulnerability and lack of security and protections. Between 2015-2018, NGOs reported trafficking networks in the IKR targeted refugees and IDPs, operating with assistance from local officials, including judges, officials from the Asayish forces, and border agents. Women and girls in IDP camps whose family members have alleged ties to ISIS continue to be exposed to a complex system of potential sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, and abuse by armed actors residing in the camps, as well as security and military officials. In 2015 and 2016, NGOs reported some personnel from the Asayish forces facilitated the sex trafficking of women and girls in Syrian refugee camps in the IKR. Reports from 2015 indicated a trafficking network exploited IDPs and some Syrian refugee women in sex trafficking in hotels and brothels in Baghdad, Basrah, and other cities in southern Iraq after agents of the network promised to resettle them from the IKR; the network also forced the women’s children to beg on the street. Criminal gangs reportedly force boys and girls to beg, especially IDP and refugee children and children with disabilities, primarily in urban areas; criminal gangs also force children to sell and transport drugs and weapons, particularly in southern Iraq.
Iraqi, Iranian, and Syrian women and girls, as well as LGBTQ+ persons in the IKR, are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking. LGBTQ+ individuals across all ethnic and religious groups remained at risk of sex trafficking primarily because of cultural stigmas. According to IKR press reports, the collapse of Iran’s currency and economic slowdown spurred an influx of more than 2,000 young Iranian women and girls into the IKR in 2018, many of whom were victims of sex trafficking in cafes, hotels, and massage centers. According to KRG law enforcement in 2018, IKR-based taxi drivers allegedly facilitate the transportation of these women and girls from Iran to the IKR under the cover of tourism. Numerous media reports in 2018 claim girls as young as 11 years old are observed in nightclubs and casinos in Baghdad as waitresses, dancers, and in commercial sex; some militia groups, including AAH, reportedly provided security at these establishments and relied on them for income. NGOs reported in 2018 and 2019 that male sex traffickers in the IKR use the threat of publicizing compromising photos of women to sexually exploit or force them into commercial sex. NGOs in 2016 reported cases in which criminal networks exploited in child sex trafficking girls who had run away from their families out of fear of honor killings. The media reported in 2018 that trafficking gangs increasingly used social media sites, particularly Facebook, to buy and sell women and girls for sex and labor exploitation. Reports from 2014-2017 suggested some Iraqi law enforcement officials have allegedly frequented brothels known for sex trafficking or accepted bribes to allow sex trafficking. Foreign media reports from 2018 suggested a growing trend of child sex trafficking of Iraqi girls ages 11-16 in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the UAE. Trafficking networks also reportedly sell Iraqi children in neighboring countries and Europe for commercial sexual exploitation. Iraqi refugees in Jordan are vulnerable to labor trafficking in Jordan’s informal labor sector, in part due to employers paying them below-market wages and expecting them to work excessively long hours.
Traditional practices, including fasliya – the exchange of family members to settle tribal disputes—and child-forced and “temporary” marriages also place women and girls at increased risk of trafficking within the country. In 2019, an international media outlet reported clerics operated “marriage offices” in areas outside of important shrines in Iraq, which advertised “temporary marriages” with girls as young as nine years old for the purpose of sex trafficking. Some militia groups, such as AAH, reportedly provided security for these “offices” and relied on them for income. Additionally, a local NGO disclosed in early 2021 that reports from local partners in southern Iraqi border provinces noted Saudis and Kuwaitis sought child sex during hunting trips in areas inhabited by Kawalyah, nomadic tribesman without civil documentation. Child protection organizations reported in 2016 incidents of child marriage—which could increase a child’s risk of trafficking—increased among IDPs and Syrian refugees in the IKR, as heads of households sought ways to generate income and reduce the family’s economic burden. As reported in previous years, traffickers forced Syrian girls from refugee camps in the IKR into early or “temporary marriages” with Iraqi or other refugee men; some KRG authorities allegedly ignored, or may have accepted bribes to ignore such cases, including those in which girls are sold multiple times. An NGO reported in early 2021 that traffickers continued to open massage parlors in five-star hotels in Iraq as a cover for commercial sex and sex trafficking; some of these hotels are owned by state entities, which allow the traffickers to operate with impunity. The Iraqi government further confirmed in early 2020 that massage parlors, coffee shops, bars, and nightclubs were locations for sex trafficking. Additionally, according to the Iraqi government, traffickers use social media to operate their networks and recruit victims, such as by advertising fake job offers.
Some men and women from throughout Asia and Africa who migrate—both legally and illegally—to Iraq are subjected to forced labor as construction workers, security guards, cleaners, handymen, and domestic workers. Contacts reported in early 2020 an increase in trafficking victims from Ghana, Kenya, and Sierra Leone. In January 2016, the MOLSA reported approximately 140,000 foreign workers lacked formal work permits; NGOs reported some employers and recruitment agents exploit workers’ illegal status by withholding salaries and subjecting workers to substandard living conditions. Some foreign migrants are recruited for work in other countries in the region but are forced, coerced, or deceived into working in Iraq and the IKR. In 2018, the KMOI reported 22 workers from the Philippines legally entered the IKR under the sponsorship of a labor contracting company but were subsequently forced to work in Baghdad. In early 2020, NGOs reported that smugglers in the IKR promise some sub-Saharan African workers better work opportunities in Baghdad, but upon arrival, traffickers exploited the workers in forced labor. An international organization reported in 2018 that if a foreign worker had a complaint of abuse about an employer, recruitment agents moved the worker to a different employer and did not report the employer to the police. Recruitment agencies reportedly operate clandestinely without permits and beyond the control of the government.