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Addressing Human Trafficking in Times of Conflict
Syrian refugee children, many of whom are orphans or unaccompanied, are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking | Photo Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

Addressing Human Trafficking in Times of Conflict

Worldwide, 21 million people are victims of human trafficking. In areas of conflict, people are particularly vulnerable to exploitation – erosion of the rule of law and government institutions creates a state of impunity where criminals act without fear of arrest and evade prosecution.

Today, January 11, is Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Last month, the UN Security Council held its first session on human trafficking in conflict and denounced terrorist groups that use trafficking as a tool of war. But trafficking in persons (TIP) is still far less documented than other crimes, and as a result, the number of TIP prosecutions is relatively low.

Both Syria and sub-Saharan Africa experience significant incidences of human trafficking due to ongoing conflict and instability. Syria Justice and Accountability Centre and IREX, through the Trafficking in Persons-Legal Assistance Program (TIP-LAP), are working to address this issue through documentation in Syria and strengthening legal frameworks in sub-Saharan Africa.

Crisis, conflict exacerbate trafficking

Not only are wartime societies less equipped to address trafficking due to a lack of resources, political will or capability to enforce laws, but the conflict itself opens the door to increased criminality and exploitation.

Displacement, impoverishment, and lack of income-generating opportunities make people particularly vulnerable to trafficking because they are left with few, if any, alternatives. Families are forced to rely on risky survival strategies such as early marriage, child labor, and prostitution, increasing exposure to trafficking. In many conflicts, TIP is used to fund war activities and can also serve a group’s ideological objectives by systematically targeting ethnic or religious minorities.

Trafficking as a weapon of war in Syria

Since 2011, mass destruction and displacement have ravaged much of Syria, internally displacing over 7.6 million Syrians and externally displacing over four million as refugees. What is particularly alarming in the Syrian context is the use of trafficking as a weapon of war.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), for example, has used trafficking to forcibly recruit and train children as soldiers on the front lines in the conflict. Whole families have been forced to work in agriculture or manufacturing for no pay under inhuman conditions. ISIS has also used trafficking to subjugate women and minorities, such as with its sexual enslavement of women and girls from the Yazidi minority group.

But ISIS is not the only perpetrator. The Syrian army and pro-government militias are forcibly recruiting Syrian boys to pose as informants and locate opposition groups prior to battle. Opposition forces, including the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), have also recruited child soldiers and abducted men and women to fight.

Documenting exploitation to end impunity

It is critical to collect documentation of exploitation and abuses to use once Syria emerges from conflict in order to address human trafficking within its transition process; otherwise, human trafficking crimes will persist and victims will remain in the shadows, susceptible to further exploitation without the services they need to heal and recover. Through the use of targeted prosecutions, truth commissions, and reparations programs that address the needs of victims, Syria can help end the culture of impunity surrounding these crimes.

Human trafficking, however, is complex and requires significant capacity building in order to train investigators, prosecutors, and judges on how to identify and try perpetrators. Syrian documentation groups like SJAC have started to document incidences of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), but are in need of additional resources and training to ensure instances of human trafficking are properly identified and recorded. As the UN Security Council stated in its December resolution, human trafficking could constitute a war crime under international law, and as such, the Syrian human rights community should carefully consider TIP to ensure trafficking crimes are properly addressed in the country’s post-war transition.

Strengthening legislation and working with key stakeholders

In addition to careful documentation, a strong legal framework is needed to ensure the prosecution of traffickers, protection of victims, and prevention of human trafficking. Despite the Security Council’s resolution and the near worldwide adoption of counter trafficking laws, there are inconsistencies between international requirements and national legislation. Many states do not fully comply with the minimum standards set forth in international law, leading to confusion about what constitutes trafficking and the state’s role in prevention and protection measures. Additionally, some states’ prescribed penalties for trafficking are not sufficiently stringent to deter traffickers.

TIP-LAP is addressing legal loopholes such as these through partnerships with governments, civil society, and other key stakeholders in sub-Saharan Africa to create and implement anti-trafficking reform strategies. TIP-LAP also supports members of the advocacy community, trafficking-focused NGOs, the media, and government agencies to design and implement public awareness and outreach campaigns about the reform process, further strengthening the effectiveness of TIP legislation.

Through the documentation and legislative strengthening efforts, SJAC and TIP-LAP are working to end impunity and strengthen victims’ access to legal protections and justice. For more information and to provide feedback please email SJAC at [email protected].

This article was written in cooperation with the Trafficking in Persons – Legal Assistance Program (TIP-LAP) which assists partner governments in Sub-Saharan Africa to introduce or strengthen anti-trafficking legislation. TIP-LAP is funded by the US Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP) and implemented by IREX.