These days we tend to think of Syria as a land of civil war, civilian atrocities and a repressive government, a country slowly but surely sliding into a full-scale meltdown. But now the US State Department has added another black mark to Syria’s list: Slavery.
In a report released this week, Syria is noted as “a destination country for women and children subjected to forced labor or sex traficking.” Acting as a regional transit point and brokerage, thousands of women flow through Syria on the promise of the old ‘domestic servant’ scam, only to find themselves trapped into sexual or menial slavery. Most of these women are from southeast Asia or the Horn of Africa, and so prolific is the problem that Ethiopia even has a ban on its citizens accepting job offers in Syria.
The massive population of refugees from Iraq over the years also represents a population vulnerable to forced labour. Criminal gangs, both Syrian and Iraqi, prey upon these displaced people. The report notes that “victims were sent to work in nightclubs, placed into temporary "marriages” to men for the sole purpose of prostitution, or sold to pimps who rent them out for longer periods of time.“
The border between the two countries is porous, and the epicentre of trafficking. The sheer volume of dislocated humanity in this part of the world is hard to comprehend. At peak rates during the Iraq conflict, a week on the Syrian border was equivalent to the total arrivals at Christmas Island for the entire year. And desperate people seek desperate solutions.
"Some Iraqi parents reportedly abandoned their daughters at the Iraqi side of the border with Syria with the expectation that trafickers would provide forged documents for them to enter Syria and work in a nightclub.”
Can you imagine being so despairing that handing over your teenage daughter to dubious strangers with the hope that she would be taken to work in a Syrian ‘gentlemen’s club’ offered the chance of a better life?
And the racket continues on from there. Since prostitution is illegal in Syria, there are periodic round-ups and prosecutions. The Iraqis will then be bounced back to limbo on the border, probably without any papers, making them easy prey for….criminal gangs. At this stage there might be bribes and commissions to be paid to obtain another ‘work placement’, leaving the woman in a situation of indebtedness to the slaver. No prize for guessing how she has to work this off.
From Syria, some of these women apparently end up as sex workers in Europe, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon.
But there is a silver lining to this cloud; a bitter-sweet absurdity so redolent of the chaos of the region. According to the report, due to the Syrian civil war - the death, the anarchy and interruption to normal life – many of these slaves have been able to flee their servitude, moving onwards to refugee camps and destinations unknown.
One would like to think that their lives will improve, but it seems only too apparent that merchants of other nationalities will be waiting to sweep them up at the next border.
Signing off on this column I almost feel like I’ve just added one more twig onto the bonfire of misery that is Syria and the region around it. Most people will have never even read this far, so inured are we to the paradigms of human depravity and evil that flow from such long-running conflicts. But as Helen Ware wrote on The Conversation recently, refugee movements are a global problem. What happens in Syria has a knock-on effect. And with our politicians of all stripes shrilly thumping the tub about “Stopping the Boats!”, I believe it’s important to look more deeply at the reasons people flee, and why a leaky Indonesian rust-bucket can look like heaven compared to the other options on the table.
Especially if you’ve got daughters.