As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Syria, and traffickers exploit Syrian victims abroad. Conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate amid the ongoing conflict between the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies and non-state armed groups of varying ideologies exerting control over wide geographic swaths of the country’s territory. Military service is compulsory for Syrian men between the ages of 18 and 42 for 18 to 21 months; however, since the start of the conflict in 2011, officials do not demobilize most individuals from military service after their mandatory period of service; rather, they force citizens to serve indefinitely under threats of detention, torture, familial reprisal, or death.
More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million have been displaced; as of September 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported there were 6.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), 2.6 million of whom were children, and more than 5.6 million Syrian-registered refugees outside the country. Syrians displaced 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, including to members of terrorist groups such as ISIS—which can lead to sexual slavery and forced labor—and children displaced within the country continue to be subjected to forced labor, particularly by organized begging rings. Armed groups, community members, and criminal gangs exploit women, girls, and boys in Syria—particularly underserved populations such as IDPs and individuals with disabilities—in sex trafficking in exchange for food or money. Traffickers subject foreign domestic workers from Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines to forced labor in Syria. In several cases, traffickers fraudulently recruited Filipina domestic workers for employment in the United Arab Emirates before transporting them to Syria where they are exploited in forced labor.
Despite the territorial defeat of ISIS at the beginning of 2019, the group 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, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence. Incidents of human trafficking increased, and trafficking victims were trapped in Syria in 2014 when ISIS consolidated its control of the eastern governorates of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour. ISIS publicly released guidelines on how to capture, forcibly hold, and sexually abuse women and girls as “slaves.” As reported by an international organization, ISIS militants’ system of organized sexual slavery and forced marriage is a central element of the terrorist group’s ideology and systemic means of oppression. ISIS subjected girls as young as nine years old, including Yezidi girls abducted from Iraq and brought to Syria, to sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence. Although as of 2021, ISIS no longer controlled territory, according to an NGO, approximately 2,700 Yezidi women and girls remain unaccounted for; reports indicate some of these women and girls remain with ISIS in eastern Syria or in Al-Hol camp.
The recruitment and use of children in combat in Syria remains common, and since the beginning of 2018, international observers reported a continuation in incidents of recruitment and use by armed groups. Syrian government forces, pro-regime militias, and armed non-state actors, including the Syrian National Army (SNA) and SNA-affiliated groups, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-affiliated groups, ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qa’ida, 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 also have 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 the NDF, or “shabiha,” forcibly recruit children as young as six years old. During previous reporting periods, there were reports armed groups abducted or recruited children to be used in hostilities outside of Syria, in particular in Libya. ISIS forces continue to deploy children—some as young as eight years old—into hostilities. Despite the territorial defeat of ISIS, it continues to target children for indoctrination at schools and camps for IDPs, endangering children and preventing their access to education.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) in northwest Syria continue to recruit, train, and use boys and girls as young as 12 years old. Since 2017, international observers reported that YPG and YPJ recruited—at times by force—children from displacement camps in northeast Syria. During the reporting year, the SDF, and by association the YPG and YPJ, continued to implement the UN Security Council resolution-mandated action plan to end the recruitment and use of children and demobilize children within SDF ranks. The SDF identified 908 minors seeking to join its ranks and continued to develop and refine an age screening mechanism in coordination with the UN. According to the UN, the action plan resulted in the disengagement of 150 children from SDF ranks during the year. NGOs allege that some Popular Mobilization Forces-affiliated militias in Iraq recruit boys in Iraq to fight in Syria. As in previous reporting periods, credible sources widely report that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Iranian Basij Resistance Force, and IRGC-supported militias actively recruit and use—including through force or coercive means—Afghan children and adults, Afghan migrant and refugee men and children living in Iran, Syrian children, and Iranian children to fight in IRGC-led and -funded Shia militias deployed to Syria.
Terrorist groups, including ISIS and HTS, reportedly force, coerce, or fraudulently recruit foreigners—including migrants from Central Asia and women, including Western women—to join them. Central Asian women traveling with men to Syria are also vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor on arrival; many are reportedly placed alongside other Central Asian family members in makeshift camp communities, where their travel and identity documentation is confiscated and their freedom of movement restricted. Many of these women report having lost their husbands to armed conflict, after which their economic hardships and confinement in the camps make them vulnerable to coercive local marriages that may feature corollary sex trafficking or forced labor indicators. During the reporting period, thousands of foreign women remained in IDP camps across northeastern Syria, and some had suspected family ties to foreign ISIS fighters; some of these individuals may have been unidentified trafficking victims. Some children in IDP camps across northeastern Syria, including Al-Hol, were potential human trafficking victims used in direct hostilities or in support roles by armed groups, including ISIS. In February 2021, an international organization reported that the repatriation of foreign children from camps across northeastern Syria had slowed significantly due to the pandemic. As in previous reporting periods, the Syrian government, NDF, SDF, and SNA detained children, including trafficking victims, for their alleged association with armed groups or terrorist organizations. In July 2020, an NGO reported government officials subjected LGBTQI+ persons in Syria to various forms of sexual violence, including cases amounting to sexual slavery, in military detention centers, prisons, and checkpoints.
The Syrian refugee population is highly vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor in neighboring countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. International organizations 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 commercial sex and other forms of exploitation—and other forms of sex trafficking in refugee camps, Lebanon, Jordan, and cities in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, including Sulaimaniya. Commercial sex rings in Turkey and Lebanon compel Syrian refugee women and girls into sex trafficking. In Turkey, some female Syrian refugees are reportedly exploited in sex or labor trafficking after accepting fraudulent job offers to work in hair salons, modeling, entertainment, or domestic work. An NGO reported Syrian boys, especially unaccompanied and separated boys, were vulnerable to sexual trafficking in exchange for the cost of being smuggled across the border to Turkey and further destinations. 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 adults and children to work in agriculture under harsh conditions, including physical abuse, with little to no pay. LGBTQI+ persons among the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon are reportedly vulnerable to sex trafficking. During the previous reporting period, Sudanese authorities identified seven Syrian trafficking victims in Khartoum. North Korean nationals working in Syria may have been forced to work by the North Korean government. Isolated media reporting in 2020 alleged Syrian men were fraudulently recruited to fight in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, believing they were going to Azerbaijan for work opportunities.