Sex Trafficking and Hidden War on Women: The Neglected Phenomenon of Syrian Civil War

By Claire Davaine

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer 

(Photo Source)

In Syria, the situation continues to deteriorate as the civil war carries on and armed groups of varying ideologies control wide areas of the country’s territory. According to the US 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, Syria is a country of origin, transit, and destination for severe forms of trafficking for men, women, and children.

Indeed, Syria is experiencing the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world today. Approximately 12 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance, including 7.6 million people internally displaced - according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). 

Although in times of conflict everyone is affected by violence, women and girls are more at risk. Nearly 3 million people have fled Syria since the crisis began and 4 out of 5 are women are children. 

Syrian women and girls, both Syrian women living as refugees in foreign countries and women – no matter where they come from - living in Syria, are vulnerable to being trafficked through sexual exploitation, coerced into early marriages, overwhelmed by economic strife, and psychologically scarred by loss in a war that seemingly has no end. Many become pregnant and are forced to undergo unsafe abortions; not only in their own country but also in neighbouring countries where they find refuge or on their way to Europe. 

Trapped in War-Torn Syria

Prior to the war, life wasn't perfect in Syria, but the state secularism ensured Syrian women relatively reasonable levels of independence in society. They enjoyed a certain degree of personal freedom, especially compared with their counterparts in the Arab world. The Baath Party was one of the first in the Arab world to declare as one of its goals the emancipation and equal treatment of women. But today, women and children are bearing the greatest burden of war.

Women are targeted by both government and pro-government forces, as well as armed groups opposed to the government such as extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). They experience violations and many of them suffered assault, torture, harassment, or deprivation. The absence of men leaves them vulnerable to abuse during household raids and search operations by armed groups, reveals a recent report published by Human Rights Watch.

 In north and north eastern areas of the country, where armed extremist groups exercise greater control, a host of restrictions on the dress and behavior of the women in the region have been imposed. Women could not go outside in public on their own—even to buy essentials such as food—without a male relative to escort them. Going to work or school is not an option either. More, multiple sources report ISIL continues to force local Syrian girls and women in ISIS-controlled areas into marriages with its fighters.

ISIS has also enslaved thousands of women, primarily women and children from the Yazidi community, who are forcibly brought to Syria to be sold in human trafficking rings or provided to fighters - where they experience forced marriage, domestic servitude, systematic rape, and sexual violence. 

Although, such violence is still often presented as a peripheral aspect or consequence of the war in Syria and not as an active instrument of wartime subjugation, the use of modern slavery as a tactic in the armed conflict is particularly alarming. 

Those who rape and violate women in Syria clearly use obsession of virginity and social control to intimidate populations and devastate communities through unconscionable violence, fear, and oppression. They detain and abuse the women to terrorize their neighbourhoods into submission. 

Sexual assault is not an accidental consequence of war, but a strategy for control. In fact, in areas controlled by religious extremists, women who are violated fear for their lives while the fear of being ostracized by their communities and their families make it difficult for women who escaped to talk about what happened when captured and abused. 

Moreover, ISIS has established “markets” where women and children are sold. They even publicly released guidelines on how to capture, forcibly hold, and sexually abuse female slaves, including girls.

But women exploitation and trafficking don’t stop at the Syrian borders… 

Striving as a Female Refugee

With men largely either engaged in fighting or prevented from leaving conflict zones, the majority of displaced Syrians are women. Fleeing the war does not mean that they have escaped violence and degradation. 

Women must pass through areas controlled by armed groups, negotiating checkpoints where rape and sexual assault are commonplace. When they lacked the financial resources to pay for their journey, smugglers would often try to coerce them into having sex. More, unscrupulous landlords and local charity organisations abuse their power and exploit the vulnerable position of these women who can't pay their rent and expect trading sex in return for aid.

Some women also experienced direct violence from other refugees, as well as by police, particularly when tensions rose in cramped conditions and security forces intervened. But if some are living in refugee camps like Zaatari in Jordan, the biggest concentration of refugees lives outside the formal camps and are the most vulnerable. Over 80% per cent of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon live in urban areas. 

The International Rescue Committee sheds light on the condition of women and girls inside Syria and those who have fled the conflict for safety in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. 

When I walk down the street I hear the comments men make. When I take public transportation to pick up aid or do the shopping, men always ask me if I am Syrian. I feel immediately objectified. In Syria, I would go out at night, even without a male escort. I enjoyed being a hostess and we were a very social family. But here, I isolate myself. There were times, especially when we first arrived, where I wouldn’t leave our apartment for weeks at a time. Even in my own home, I can’t escape the harassment—I am afraid when I am inside with the door locked. Strange men call my cell phone, trying to engage me in conversation or solicit me. The result is incredible daily stress and growing depression. I feel like I am choking.
— Farah, Age 36, Jordan


Beyond harassment, the Syrian refugee population is highly vulnerable to trafficking in neighbouring countries, like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Smugglers target women who are travelling alone and have crossed the border illegally. As they arrive with no passport, they are at high risk of being kidnapped and sold as prostitutes or sex slaves. "Refugee smuggling" has become a major source of income.

In Turkey, a detailed report on Syrian women refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants, issued by the Association for Human Rights and Solidarity with the Oppressed (known in Turkish as Mazlumder), tells of early and forced marriages, polygamy, sexual harassment, human trafficking, prostitution, and rape that criminals inflicted upon Syrians in Turkey.

Professional criminals convince parents that their daughters are going to a better life in Turkey. The parents are given 2000-5000 Turkish liras ($700-$1700) as a "bride price" - an very import amount of money for a poor Syrian family - to smuggle their daughters across the border. Also, according to the Mazlumder report, young women between the ages of 15 and 20 are most commonly prostituted, but girls as young as thirteen are also exploited. 

In Jordan, aid workers are warning that young Syrian women are increasingly at risk of sexual exploitation. The Zaatari camp is home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees. An olive-green tent standing apart from the others is used as a mosque. The imam, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Guardian, admits he worries about some of the young women he sees. He says he is so concerned that he refuses to carry out some marriages.

"The men come into the camp and … they are just buying girls." Many of these men come from Jordan and the Gulf. Men also regularly go house to house looking for brides or go to a matchmaker to find a girl. They come to Jordan to find Syrian girls as they think they are needy people now.In Lebanon, security forces have recently dismantled the country's largest known sex trafficking ring and freed 75 mainly Syrian women who had been subjected to beatings and psychological and physical torture, forced to perform sexual acts and had indecent images of them taken and distributed. They also arrested a doctor and a nurse who worked for the traffickers and who admitted to performing nearly 200 abortions for the captive women.

"As with any war, conflict has made Syrian women and children even more vulnerable," the security source said. "They pay the highest price."

The increasingly violent civil war continued to cause exacerbated, and contributed directly to human trafficking crimes to flourish throughout the country and beyond. Female refugees face violence, sexual exploitation and harassment as they make their journey from Syria to Europe, Amnesty International said in a report released in January 2016.

All the interviewed women described feeling threatened and unsafe during the journey. Many reported that in almost all of the countries they passed through they experienced physical abuse and financial exploitation, being groped or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff or other refugees. 

“You don't know who to trust”.

“After living through the horrors of the war in Iraq and Syria these women have risked everything to find safety for themselves and their children. But from the moment they begin this journey they are again exposed to violence and exploitation, with little support or protection,” states Crisis Response director Tirana Hassan.