The Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Greenhouse for Human Trafficking

By Rachel Buchan

Jordan has the third largest population of Syrian refugees in the world, with 635,000 registered Syrian refugees in the country. Additional unregistered refugees push the total number higher. The 2016 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report describes Jordan as a “source, destination and transit country for adults and children subjected to forced labor, and to a lesser extent, sex trafficking.” Grave financial circumstances and an overwhelmed infrastructure render Syrian refugees increasingly vulnerable to modern day slavery.

The Jordanian government is making efforts to combat human trafficking. According to the TIP report alleged perpetrators, including complicit government officials and offenders in the garment industry, were investigated, prosecuted, and convicted last year. In 2015, 28 forced labor cases were referred for prosecution, the majority involving domestic servitude. Other cases included the agricultural and construction sectors. Two trafficking cases were dropped, however, under general amnesty announced by Royal Decree of the King.

Children and women are particularly susceptible to slavery in Jordan. Many are forced into sex trafficking, sometimes through early or ‘temporary’ marriages. Research indicates that third parties often arrange these marriages on behalf of men from the gulf. Afterwards the girl may be abandoned or even sold into prostitution. Agencies have witnessed girls married off repeatedly in this way.

Other refugee women and children migrate under fraudulent opportunity to work in restaurants or nightclubs. Instead of employment, they are enslaved.

An article in the Guardian introduces two Syrian women, Aaliyah and Ishtar, who were forced into exploitative employment due to fraudulent marriages. Ishtar was brought to Jordan under forced marriage and the man forced her to work in bars and other illegal activities. He withheld her compensation and prevented her from leaving—key elements of human trafficking.

Victims of labor trafficking are often recruited under fraudulent offers of “transportation, asylum, employment and even marriage.” The TIP report indicates an unknown number of labor disputes, many of which likely involved refugees. Allegations included cases of non-payment, withholding of passports, breaches of contract, inappropriate work conditions, and excessive work hours.

The garment industry, in particular, had a number of forced labor allegations. Last year, one factory was guilty of over 100 cases of exploited and trafficked migrant workers. Confiscation of passports, withheld pay, physical abuse, and unsafe living conditions were among the criminal activities.

Child labor is a massive industry as well, with evidence of force and coercion against large numbers of trafficked refugee children.

Labor trafficking risk is fueled largely by poverty, financial insecurity, and the overwhelming underground labor market in Jordan. Recent studies found that nine out of ten Syrian refugees are below the poverty line. As of September 2015, 67 percent of refugees were in debt. Cuts in medical care from the Jordanian government and food assistance from aid organizations have had a “domino effect,” impacting every area of refugees’ lives.

Despite government efforts to increase refugees’ access to legal employment, 99 percent of Syrian refugees in 2015 were working without permits. The informal market does not comply with minimum wage or working condition requirements. And in most cases, risk of arrest and deportation deter refugees from reaching out to law enforcement for help—even in cases of exploitation and trafficking.

For women and children, Jordanian authorities at the refugee camps attempt to mitigate the risk of sex trafficking by verifying consent in marriages. Since only 15 percent of Syrian refugees are living in designated camps, steps should be taken to address trafficking affecting non-camp populations.

Disrupting human trafficking in Jordan will require increasing the risk and decreasing the profits for perpetrators. The TIP report indicates robust efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict cases. All forms of sex trafficking and forced labor are criminalized under Jordanian law.

Despite these efforts, some cases last year involved elements of human trafficking but were not categorized as such. In fact, the general consensus was to handle cases of domestic servitude through mediation rather than prosecution.

Sufficiently stringent penalties are critical in deterring traffickers. Even when cases are prosecuted under anti-human trafficking law, the penalties pale in comparison to the crime. The minimum punishment for trafficking is less than one year in prison and minor fines. Yet sentencing for rape requires no less than 10 years’ imprisonment under Jordanian law. Reform is critical.

To learn more about Human Rights First’s approach to ending trafficking, please see our blueprint, “How to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking.”


Published on October 3, 2016


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