Trafficking in persons makes the headlines of newspapers again in the region. This time, it is the trafficking in Syrian girls and widows under the pretext of marriage and protection. This brings back to memory the plights of the Iraq war, as some of the female refugees were subjected to conditions of trafficking in Iraq’s neighboring countries and some of the Gulf States. Trafficking in persons is a phenomenon that accompanies wars and unrest.
One international NGO has recently worked closely with the Iraqi government and local NGOs in this field. Heartland Alliance says “whenever people are forced to become refugees, they are vulnerable to being exploited. Trafficking exists in Iraq right now, and it might occur in the Syrian refugee community”.
Iraq, while still under Tier 2 Watch List according to the latest US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2012, has made some progress last year and certainly has a good anti-trafficking Law to start with.
However, and despite efforts exerted by several international and national organizations, participation of civil society in combating trafficking in persons in Iraq is not as strong as it needs to be.
Vulnerability of Refugees
In response to several reports about cases in which Jordanian men were marrying young Syrian girls from the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan under the pretext of protecting them, a group of Syrian activists launched an online campaign called “Refugees, not Spoils of War”, reported Lebanon Now.[i]
In other countries, similar stories are evident. But in Al-Qaem Camp in Anbar-Iraq, you hear different stories. The family and tribal connections among the Syrian refugees, who only recently started crossing to Iraq seeking safe refuge, and the host communities in Iraq are very strong and respected by all. According to one Iraqi NGO, only one case of sexual assault was reported in the al-Qaem Camp and was solved immediately. Another factor playing a major role in protecting young Syrian girls from such a destiny is the almost full closure of the camp by the Iraqi government, which closely monitors the in-and-out movement.
However, Heartland Alliance draws attention to the following fact: “trafficking can occur within a country, without the victim ever crossing an international border. For example, many Arab women from the south were kidnapped by armed militias in 2006 and some of them were sold for prostitution in the Kurdistan region. Others were transported across international borders, to Syria, the UAE and Lebanon. There was one case in which the police arrested a man in Kirkuk who was in the business of selling women to Syria. The same thing can happen now, in the other direction, with Syrian women being forced into prostitution in Iraq. Up to date, no such cases were reported, but it is possible that this is happening or might happen”.
UN agencies, such as UNAMI and UNHCR are certainly aware that trafficking occurs. Anyone who suspects that trafficking is occurring can contact a UN agency. The EU has provided capacity building to the judiciary and relevant governmental entities. IOM also monitors trafficking in persons as well as various women’s organizations that work on gender-based violence and routinely come across victims of trafficking.
For its part, Heartland Alliance is committed to assisting the Iraqi government and the KRG to implement the law and is always available for consultation.
Precautious measures do need to be put in place as of now.
Anti-Trafficking in Persons Laws in the Region
Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and more recently Iraq have issued anti-trafficking in persons laws to prohibit all forms of trafficking. Turkey is yet to issue a similar law.
Although the anti-trafficking in persons law in Iraq, described as a “comprehensive” one by the State Department Report, is enforced, no prosecutions have so far been implemented. Iraq has convicted some traffickers under other laws, charging the perpetrators of kidnapping, assault and involvement in prostitution.
The Central Committee, formed under Article 2 of the Iraqi Trafficking in Persons Law, titled the Central Committee to Prevent Human Trafficking, has convened a couple of times and drafted executive orders, which usually interpret a given law to facilitate implementation. In late September 2012, a meeting chaired by Baghdad’s Governor took place in order to “draft a strategy to activate the functionalities of the counter trafficking in persons Committee.” Members of the Committee include representatives from Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Justice, Finance, Social Affairs and Immigration as well as the Human Rights Commission, Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi provinces, but no civil society organization is on board.
Heartland Alliance in Iraq
In a recently implemented project, Heartland Alliance provided legal representation and social services to victims of human trafficking, assisted the Iraqi government in prosecuting traffickers, and trained law enforcement and NGOs to identify and respond to human trafficking.
The project took place in Baghdad, Basra, the KRG, Jordan and Lebanon. The project assisted more than 200 victims over three years in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, with the largest number in Baghdad. Heartland Alliance assisted in the prosecution of more than 12 persons for forcing women into prostitution or other forms of forced labor. The ones that occurred in Iraq prior to the passage of the Law were treated as rape cases and rape charges were brought against the offenders.
It is important to define trafficking because sometimes people confuse it with smuggling of persons, or with prostitution, says Heartland Alliance.
Trafficking is the act of recruiting, holding, selling or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them. Trafficking means that a trafficker forces a person to do some work or provide some service against their will or by tricking them. Common forms of trafficking include forced prostitution, taking the passports and then physically or sexually abusing domestic servants, and tricking children or persons with disabilities into working without pay. Trafficking can take place within national boundaries or across international boundaries.
A majority of the trafficking victims assisted by Heartland Alliance were women and girls forced into prostitution. Heartland Alliance also assisted some foreign workers. The NGO also collaborated with IOM, the Iraqi Government and the KRG government on an effort to get an anti-trafficking act passed in Iraq, which occurred last spring.
Currently, Heartland Alliance works with the Central Committee on implementing the Law.
Gaps in Addressing the Problem
Heartland Alliance believes there are several gaps that need to be addressed.
As parts of Iraq become more peaceful, foreign workers are again entering the country. This is especially true in the KRG. One of the biggest gaps is the lack of a government response to protect foreign workers who have their passports taken from them, or are forced to do some work they did not agree to, or are abused by their employers. A recent report on domestic servants in Jordan and Lebanon showed that more than half of foreign domestic servants were physically abused by their employers, forced to do work that was not in their contract, and in some cases sexually abused by their employers. This problem also occurs in Iraq. The central government and particularly the KRG need to establish enforcement mechanisms so that foreign workers can complain about abuses, be listened to, and be protected. Employers should not be allowed to take away workers’ passports or restrict workers from leaving the house. The government needs to control employment agencies and assure that they educate all foreign workers of their rights. Employment agencies serve a valuable function but they need to help prevent trafficking and they also need to be regulated and monitored by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Interior.
Women and girls who are forced into prostitution are at terrible risk anywhere in Iraq. Police and judges sometimes do not consider coercion or force as a defense in prostitution cases. It is important for everyone to remember that if a woman was forced into prostitution she is a victim and not a criminal. Sometimes women and girls are forced into prostitution by their own families. Other families may feel such shame over what happened that they blame the girl and even try to kill her. Safety planning and confidentiality are really important. Often women can be reunited with their families but this has to be arranged and monitored very carefully. One of the remaining problems is making sure that women who cannot reunite with their families can live safely and independently without becoming victims of trafficking again.
Any organization that works with female victims of trafficking should have a background in protecting victims of gender-based violence, because some of the problems facing the women are the same. Above all, any program addressing the problem has to take a victim-centered approach. Sometimes the easiest solution is not the best. Victims of trafficking lose the ability to make decisions regarding their own lives. Programs who assist victims of trafficking have a responsibility not only to protect them, but to give them back the power to make decisions over their lives.
Heartland Alliance partnered with local NGOs, including Harikar and al-Masala in the KRG to implement the project. The local NGOs received training on legal services and also on mediation. Capacity building was also achieved through learning-by-doing as the national NGOs worked closely with an INGO whose mission is to advance the human rights and respond to the human needs of endangered populations—particularly the poor, the isolated, and the displaced—through the provision of comprehensive and respectful services and the promotion of permanent solutions leading to a more just global society.
Heartland Alliance trained many policemen and also Asaysh in the KRG. Some of them might be monitoring the situation in view of the recent influx of Syrian refugees. Some police are dedicated and understand the issue. They can be counted on to assist a trafficking victim in a humane way.
NGOs and CSOs can be involved in several ways, says Heartland Alliance.
First, NGOs and CSOs can educate themselves and Iraqi society on trafficking, and reinforce the idea that women and girls are not property. Women who are forced into prostitution are victims and not criminals. Likewise, women and girls should not be forced to marry against their will, or be traded in order to settle problems between families, as still occurs in some parts of Iraq. Changing these patterns requires education, and both NGOs and CSOs have a big role to play.
Second, many women’s organizations are already important in providing services to victims of trafficking. They need more funding, and they need official support from government agencies. Women’s organizations can also work collaboratively with the police to monitor women’s rights and help educate police on identifying victims.
Third, NGOs and CSOs can provide information on trafficking to IOM, which tracks and monitors human trafficking in Iraq.
Fourth, NGOs and CSOs should remember that foreign workers may become victims of trafficking. Those organizations that have legal services projects or run shelters should be prepared to assist foreign workers on occasion, if the worker is at risk of violence.
Civil society organizations and NGOs working in Iraq are encouraged to launch more initiatives to prevent trafficking in persons and protect the victims. They are called on to participate.
N.B. Heartland Alliance’s mediation manual is available on its website at: www.heartlandalliance.org/international.