Modern Slavery as a Tactic in Armed Conflicts

Fact Sheet
Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
December 15, 2015


Armed groups, violent extremists, and militias fuel conflicts that devastate communities and weaken social and governmental structures, leaving adults and children defenseless and vulnerable. Women and children in armed conflicts are particularly vulnerable to multiple abuses, including those involving human trafficking and sexual and gender-based violence.

The use of modern slavery as a tactic in the armed conflicts in Iraq and Syria is particularly alarming. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as other armed groups and militias, continue to intimidate populations and devastate communities through unconscionable violence, fear, and oppression. ISIL has made the targeting of women and children, particularly from Yezidi and other minority groups, a hallmark of its campaign of atrocities. In the past year, ISIL has abducted, systematically raped, and abused thousands of women and children, some as young as 8 years of age. Many of the horrific human rights abuses that ISIL has engaged in also amount to human trafficking. Women and children are sold and enslaved, distributed to ISIL fighters as spoils of war, forced into marriage and domestic servitude, or subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse. ISIL has established “markets” where women and children are sold with price tags attached and has published a list of rules on how to treat female slaves once captured.

In a recent UN report, women and girls who managed to escape from ISIL recounted how they were treated. A young woman shared how she was taken to a school and given to an ISIL emir as his slave, and in another case, 150 unmarried girls and women were reportedly transported to Syria from Iraq to be given to ISIL fighters as rewards. Some isolated reports indicate ISIL has begun transporting captive women and girls to buyers in the Gulf. Men and boys are also vulnerable to trafficking, as entire families are reportedly abducted and forced to work in agriculture, such as on sheep and poultry farms in Iraq. Additionally, there is growing concern that some ISIL recruits from Central Asian countries may be vulnerable to trafficking after arriving in Syria. Others, deceived by recruiters promising jobs in Turkey, are later taken to Syria and forced by extremist groups to fight, work, or endure sexual servitude.

ISIL continues to actively and unlawfully recruit, including by abduction, train, and use children—some as young as 12 years old—as soldiers in Iraq and Syria. These children are forced to undergo military training to join the front lines of combat, while some are deployed as human shields or made to patrol ISIL checkpoints. In training camps, children nicknamed “Cubs of the Caliphate” are trained to use weapons, make bombs, and deploy as suicide bombers.

Whole communities in Iraq and Syria continue to be displaced internally and in neighboring countries, as increasing numbers of adults and children flee the horrors of war, including those perpetrated by ISIL and other armed groups. The UN estimates 2.8 million individuals in Iraq have been displaced and nearly four million Syrians have fled the country, mostly to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. This displacement is compounded by the use of human trafficking as a tactic by ISIL in the armed conflict.

The use of modern slavery in armed conflicts is not unique to ISIL, but is also evident in the case of other armed groups that are forcibly recruiting children and training them to be soldiers or otherwise exploiting them. Boko Haram has forcibly recruited and used child soldiers as young as 12 years old, and abducted women and girls in the northern region of Nigeria, some of whom it later subjected to domestic servitude, other forms of forced labor, and sexual servitude through forced marriages to its militants. In Somalia, al-Shabaab has recruited and used children in armed conflict. The Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group that operates in eastern regions of the Central African Republic, enslaves boys and girls for use as cooks, porters, concubines, and combatants. The use of human trafficking in the midst of armed conflicts further amplifies the unspeakable devastation communities and families experience and perpetuates intimidation and fear among oppressed communities.