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Human Trafficking Center

ISIS: One of Many Contributors to Trafficking in Syria and Iraq


Oct 2014



by Jenni Hankel, Associate Director of Research

While rape, sexual violence and human trafficking are not new phenomena to the Middle East, the media’s focus on abuses by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has made it appear as though sex and labor trafficking rates are increasing rapidly. As ISIS continues to kidnap and traffic human beings, it’s important to note this is not a new phenomenon in the Middle East. A focus on the novelty of these events inhibits deeper analysis of the complex and interconnected factors influencing trafficking in Iraq and Syria.

With the influence of ISIS spreading throughout western Iraq, systematic sexual violence is increasingly used as a tool of terror, coercion and control. Multiple sources report ISIS’s demand for forced marriagescoerced child sex and various forms of sex trafficking. Furthermore, as ISIS seeks to recruit girls and women online, some political analysts warn that ISIS is creating a human trafficking pipeline streaming females from the West into Syria for forced marriage to militant groups.

It is important to note that most media favors reporting on sex trafficking, kidnappings, forced marriages and sexual assault. As these egregious violations of human dignity continue, forced child begging, organ trafficking and the continuation of migrant labor exploitation are often overlooked.

While the media has linked ISIS to human trafficking, it is unlikely that ISIS is the only factor influencing this trend. According to Kevin Bales, political instability, transition, economic pressures and other social or cultural features all contribute to the rise of human trafficking. Poverty in particular is a key factor influencing the demand for either sex or labor trafficking. When poverty is mixed with violence, the risk for both forms of trafficking is heightened.

To compare, note how high rates of political instability and poverty contributed to rising trafficking rates in Iraq during the civil war and U.S. invasion in 2003. Armed conflict in Syria had previously increased the number of people in that region impacted by poverty, violence and displacement. The U.S. Department of State reports that other countries in the region such as Kuwait, the U.A.E. and Lebanon had already seen rising rates of trafficking flows originating from Syria long before ISIS began dominating east Syria and western Iraq. Even before ISIS, Iraqi refugees in Syria were at risk for forced sex work, coerced child begging and exploited labor.

While ISIS has undoubtedly contributed significantly to the flows of human trafficking in the Middle East, there are multiple other factors impacting trafficking. If we fail to acknowledge the diverse historical, social, economic, political, cultural and ecological contributors to human trafficking in both Syria and Iraq, we risk missing context-specific solutions. Only through a deeper, holistic analysis of human trafficking in the Middle East can activists begin to formulate an appropriate solution and strategy aimed at addressing its root causes.

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