The least bad option: For many Syrians, exploitation is the only way to survive

RSS - Press Release

VIENNA, 14 January 2016 – A new study, the first of its kind, casts light on how the conflict in Syria is making children, women and men more vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking in persons. Often people are trafficked or exploited simply because they are not able to meet their basic needs, according to research by ICMPD, the International Centre for Migration Policy Development. To prevent this, investment in infrastructure and humanitarian aid in the main hosting countries is essential.

For almost five years, Syrians have been fleeing their homes and moving repeatedly within the country or across its borders. The longer the war continues, the more people’s savings are depleted, and they become increasingly vulnerable to trafficking.

Syrians’ legal status in the hosting countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq does not usually allow them to work. Together with the high numbers of people arriving, which puts pressure on public services, this makes Syrians vulnerable to exploitation. Because their parents are unable to generate an income for the family to survive, Syrian children are also more at risk of child labour and sexual exploitation.

As one Syrian described: “We fled from the Kurdish party, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, the Assad regime. We had no strength to run any longer, no bread, nothing”. So getting involved in sexual exploitation, forced marriage or labour exploitation may be the only way to have any means of surviving. In a desperate situation, exploitation seems like the ‘least bad option’.

Refugees intending to seek safety in Europe must pay substantial sums of money, and maybe even go into debt, to migrant smugglers. One major risk is that a situation of migrant smuggling can develop into one of human trafficking.

But the ICMPD research found that trafficking is not generally perpetrated by organised criminal groups, as is often assumed.

The most common type of exploitation is at a lower level, involving family members, acquaintances and neighbours. One 17-year-old Syrian girl in Jordan was forced by her mother’s friend into temporary “marriages” with Saudi Arabian and Jordanian men, who sexually abused her. As the research study describes, the girl was “subjected to forced marriages to about [fourteen] men over a period of almost two years. Each ‘marriage’ lasted on average between one and three days.”

The cases examined in the research also indicate that people are not generally trafficked across borders. Vulnerable Syrians are targeted for exploitation after they have fled the country.

Download the full study 'Targeting Vulnerabilities'  


The capacities of the governments in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are significantly affected by the ongoing war and the arrival of large groups of people fleeing Syria. So investment in infrastructure in hosting countries in the region and resettlement to safe countries outside the region, particularly in the EU, is essential.

If basic needs such as housing and food are met, people will be less desperate and less dependent on exploitation or trafficking. Opportunities for income generation for adults will reduce the incidence of low-level trafficking.

To make sure that vulnerable children, women and men do not fall through the gaps in our aid structures, international and national actors should always take into account that a refugee or internally displaced person may also be a victim of human trafficking.

The focus of national governments, local NGOs, international organisations, aid agencies, the EU and others must be to ameliorate people’s vulnerabilities and increase their resilience, giving them alternatives that are not merely the ‘least bad option’, and providing them with what they need in order to better cope with the ravages of violence and displacement.

Download the Policy Brief 'How are the war in Syria and the refugee crisis affecting human trafficking?' with further recommendations.


The countries that the study focuses on were selected on the basis of the magnitude of refugee and internal displacement: Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The latter four countries host 86.7% of Syria’s refugees abroad. According to UNHCR, an additional 441,246 Syrians sought asylum in Europe from April 2011 to August 2015, and 159,147 in Egypt and other North African countries, giving an overall total of 4,529,572 Syrian refugees.

None of the four hosting countries apply the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of a refugee to those fleeing the war in Syria. This means that those fleeing Syria are subject to specific ad hoc regulations issued prior to and since the outbreak of the war.

On the other hand, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have all ratified the 2000 UN Trafficking Protocol and passed legislation criminalising human trafficking.

The study found that Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have made significant efforts to respond to the arrival and settlement of these refugees.

In Syria, just 17% of internally displaced people are in camps. Lebanon has not authorised the setting up of any official refugee camps for Syrians, while in Iraq the proportion is 39%, in Jordan 19% and in Turkey 15% of all registered refugees.



The International Centre for Migration Policy Development is a key player in the migration field. The organisation has 15 member states, and carries out activities throughout the world, also in the Middle East. Besides its mission in Brussels, ICMPD has project offices in 7 countries, including in Turkey and in Lebanon.

Through its six Competence Centres, ICMPD provides its member states and numerous partners with in-depth knowledge and expertise in dealing with the phenomena of migration. It does so through using a holistic 3-pillar approach: research, capacity building and migration dialogues. 

More information about ICMPD’s work

Factsheet with frequently asked questions about ICMPD    


The project 'Assessment of the Impact of the Syrian War and Refugee Crisis on Trafficking in Persons' is funded by the US Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and is being implemented by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development.


Claire Healy, Research Officer
+43 1 504 4677 2318

Sonia Niżnik, Communications Officer
+43 1 504 4677 2444