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August 16, 2016

The Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Greenhouse for Human Trafficking

By Rachel Buchan

Around the world today, an estimated twenty-one million people have fallen prey to the criminal enterprise of human trafficking. Though victim demographics run the gamut, there is one factor common to all: vulnerability to exploitation.

Social, cultural, and economic policies and practices have the ability to either protect or endanger individuals and groups to human trafficking. As the 2016 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report highlights, “[Traffickers] prey on those who lack security and opportunity, coerce or deceive them to gain control, and then profit from their compelled service.”

As vulnerabilities compound, certain individuals, such as those applying for short term or seasonal work, runaway or homeless youth, and communities in crisis, experience heightened susceptibility to modern day slavery. The TIP report includes refugees among these most vulnerable groups.

The journey of a refugee is riddled with vulnerabilities at every stage. Refugees fleeing conflict often arrive at their first country of asylum plagued by homelessness, isolation, and trauma. Many struggle to secure food, shelter, and other basic needs. Missing identity documentation and varying degrees of implementation of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention in countries of first asylum—some of which have yet to ratify the treaty—handicap the few human rights accessible. In most cases, the legal right to work and education are not guaranteed, exacerbating the already desperate economic state of many refugees.

Due to the Syrian crisis, 4.8 million people have been rendered refugees and nearly all of them are acutely vulnerable to human trafficking. According to UNICEF, children as young as three years old are working and 2.8 million do not have access to education. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees described the crisis as the “biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.” Host countries’ infrastructures are buckling under the strain, forcing refugees to rely on smugglers, treacherous migrant routes, and quasi-impossible border crossings in a continual search for protection.

The cumulative effect of these vulnerabilities creates a greenhouse for human trafficking. Coercive recruitment tactics, such as fraudulent job offers, shelter, or education, seem extremely appealing in the absence of durable solutions.  

Recognition of labor and sex trafficking in crises is often overlooked and omitted from evaluations of humanitarian and emergency responses—a void noted in the 2016 TIP report. Given the magnitude of the Syrian crisis and the distinct vulnerabilities of refugees, systems of trafficking must be identified and disrupted in countries of asylum.

In a new blog series, we will examine human trafficking in the five countries hosting the largest numbers of Syrian refugees: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.

Dismantling modern day slavery requires increasing the risks and decreasing the profits for perpetrators, as well as providing adequate resources to combat the criminal enterprise. Numbers of prosecutions, convictions, and victims identified are indicative of such efforts, as well as the degree to which a country confronts slavery in all forms (e.g. forced labor, child labor, sex trafficking, etc). Understanding the root causes and current efforts in fighting modern day slavery among Syrian refugees is necessary in order to effectively protect refugees and combat human trafficking globally.