Project News

New research: How are the war in Syria and the refugee crisis affecting human trafficking?

14 January 2016

ICMPD’s new study finds that Syrian refugees are often trafficked or exploited because they are not able to meet their basic needs. 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, 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 as they are no longer able to meet their basic needs. As this new ICMPD study shows, more and more families have no viable alternative for survival other than situations that could be defined as exploitation and trafficking in national and international law.

The complexity of their situations is influenced by the war and violence itself, but also by the legal and institutional systems that the children, women and men fleeing war must navigate within Syria and in the four hosting countries. Syrians’ legal status in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq does not allow them to work. 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.

Most common type of exploitation is at a low level, involving relatives

The desperation of some of these people, especially parents who cannot provide for sustenance, accommodation and essential services for themselves and their children, can lead to them exploiting members of their own families.

The classic organised crime paradigm commonly used for understanding trafficking does not fit neatly onto the actual situation of people trafficked in the context of the Syrian conflict. Very severe forms of exploitation and trafficking are indeed taking place, committed by highly organised criminal networks, but the most common type of exploitation is at a lower level, involving fathers, mothers, husbands, extended family, acquaintances and neighbours. 

Worst forms of child labour, child trafficking for labour exploitation, exploitation through begging and trafficking for sexual exploitation affected people in the countries under study before the war, but have now increased among Syrians. Particularly in the case of sexual exploitation, a certain replacement effect is in evidence, with Syrian women and girls exploited in prostitution, where before people trafficked for this purpose were of other nationalities. 

Child labour and child begging have been affected in the sense that conditions have become more severe, with more serious abuses of child rights. The incidence of these phenomena has also increased overall.

Victims falling between the cracks of legal and aid frameworks 

In most of the cases revealed through this research, trafficking is not a cross-border phenomenon related to the migratory movement itself, though cross-border trafficking is present in some cases. The trafficking process commonly begins when victims are already displaced, targeting their vulnerability.

The war and displacement have also caused added vulnerability for migrants and refugees who were in Syria when the war broke out, including Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, and domestic workers from Southeast Asia and East Africa.

The research shows that there is need for a paradigm shift in how trafficking, refugee, migration and child protection policy are viewed in terms of access to protection. While policy-makers and practitioners might see themselves as working in distinct fields, on specific topics, the human beings in need of protection do not always fall under one single, clear-cut category. We must concentrate efforts to provide access to basic needs and safety for people displaced from and within Syria. 

Policy recommendations to protect refugees from exploitation

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. 


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Photo: Lance Shields on Flickr