The Syrian conflict has evolved from a violent government crackdown against a peaceful protest movement to a civil war. Human rights observers estimate that more than 140,000 people have been killed since the beginning of protests against the Bashar al Asad regime in March 2011. 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. As the humanitarian crisis worsens, with more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced persons at the end of the reporting period, more Syrians are highly vulnerable to trafficking.
Syria is a source and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking, primarily in countries throughout the Middle East. Internally, Syrian children are forcibly recruited and used in conflict as child soldiers by government, government-affiliated, and non-state armed groups, including extremists and some elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). UNHCR, UN Women, and the media reported a high number of underage marriages among refugee populations in neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon. According to media reports, the UN, and civil society organizations, teenage Syrian refugees who fled to neighboring countries are forced into “pleasure marriages” or “temporary marriages”—for the purpose of prostitution or sexual exploitation—by men from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Wealthy men from Gulf countries pay thousands of dollars to matchmakers to marry teenage Syrian girls, while Arab men reportedly peruse the refugee camps in Jordan for the purpose of finding a Syrian bride. The media and Lebanese officials reported an increase in the numbers of Syrian women brought to Lebanon for the purpose of prostitution, including through the guise of early marriage. Reporting suggests an increase in Syrian refugee children engaging in street begging in Lebanon and Jordan, some of which may be forced. An international organization reported that Syrian gangs force Syrian refugees, including men, women, and children, to work in the agricultural sector in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley harvesting potatoes, olives, and bananas while living in informal tented settlements. Victims are forced to work under harsh conditions with little to no pay; some are forced to work to pay off debts incurred to facilitate their entry into Lebanon or to pay for their lodging. 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. Media and UN reporting indicate that economically desperate Syrian children, especially those internally displaced, continued to be subjected to forced labor within the country, particularly by organized begging rings.
The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria and the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict corroborated media reports that pro-government forces and armed opposition groups, including the FSA, continue to forcibly recruit and use Syrian children in combat as soldiers and human shields, as well as in support roles. The COI reported that pro-government militia used children as young as 13-years-old to man checkpoints in Aleppo, Dara’a, and Tartus. In some cases, the Syrian army forcibly recruited boys under 18-years-old. The extremist group Jabhat Al Nusra provided weapons training to children in Tal Rifat (Aleppo) in July 2013, while the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant used a school in Al Bab (Aleppo) as a military training camp for boys in September 2013. The Syrian-Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), also reportedly recruited children under the age of 18 into their forces.
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 continued to forcibly recruit and use child soldiers; it also failed to protect and prevent children from recruitment and use by both government and opposition armed forces. The government failed to ensure that victims of trafficking were not arrested, detained, and severely abused as a result of being subjected to human trafficking, such as child soldiering. The government did not make efforts to investigate and punish trafficking offenders, including officials in the armed forces complicit in recruiting and using child soldiers. The government failed to identify or provide protective services to any trafficking victims. The government’s prevention efforts were also deficient, as there were no efforts to inform the public about human trafficking or provide anti-trafficking training to government officials.
Recommendations for Syria:
Stop the forcible recruitment and use of child soldiers by both government and opposition armed forces, and provide adequate protection services to demobilized children; ensure that victims of trafficking, especially children, are not punished for crimes committed as a direct result of trafficking; establish policies and procedures for law enforcement officials to proactively identify and interview potential trafficking victims, and refer them to the care of relevant organizations; implement the anti-trafficking law through increased investigations and prosecutions of trafficking offenders; conduct anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts, including by prosecuting complicit government officials who forcibly recruited and used child soldiers, ensure that the anti-trafficking directorate is fully operational, and provide training on human trafficking to police, military, immigration, labor, and social welfare officials; launch a nationwide anti-trafficking public awareness campaign; designate an official coordinating body or mechanism to facilitate anti-trafficking coordination among the relevant ministries, law enforcement entities, international organizations, and NGOs; and accede to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.
The government did not report any anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. The increasingly violent conflict during the reporting period continued to undercut any anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts, and inadequate law enforcement training remained a significant impediment to identifying and prosecuting trafficking crimes in Syria. Decree No. 3 of 2011 provides a legal foundation for prosecuting trafficking offenses and protecting victims, but it does not include a clear definition of human trafficking. This decree 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. The government adopted Law no. 11/2013 in June 2013 which criminalizes all forms of recruitment and use of children under the age of 18 by armed forces and armed groups. However, the government made no efforts to implement this law; rather, the government continued to recruit and use child soldiers. The government did not report investigating, prosecuting, or convicting suspected trafficking offenders. The Ministry of Interior’s specialized anti-trafficking directorate continued to be inoperable. The government did not make efforts to investigate, prosecute, or convict government employees complicit in human trafficking, including officials that forcibly recruited and used child soldiers in combat and support roles. The government did not report providing anti-trafficking training for officials.
The government did not report efforts to identify and provide protection to victims of trafficking. The government did not report instituting victim identification procedures, nor did it refer victims to available protection services. The government failed to take measures to protect children from being forcibly recruited as soldiers, human shields, and in support roles by pro-government and opposition armed forces. Furthermore, children who were forcibly recruited and used by the FSA and other opposition groups were highly susceptible to arrest, detention, rape, torture, and execution for affiliation with these groups; the government made no efforts to exempt these children from punishment as victims of trafficking or to offer them any protection services. 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.
The government did not report efforts to prevent human trafficking. The government failed to implement measures to prevent children from being recruited and used as combatants and in support roles by government and opposition armed forces. The government did not raise awareness of human trafficking among the general public or government officials. The government did not report on the status of its national plan of action against trafficking, which was drafted in early 2010. The government did not report efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts or forced labor. Syria is not a party to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.