The current crisis of Syrian refugees migrating to bordering states and Europe has commanded the attention of the media. From images of 3-year-old Aylan dead on the shores of Turkey to the tables of the European Commission, this issue has become global. However, seldom discussed is the stark connection between trafficking and refugees.
Refugees are vulnerable to trafficking in numerous ways. For one, numerous refugees pay smugglers to flee to safety, which is often coupled by a high risk of being trafficked after arriving to the recipient country. Physical and economic insecurity leaves refugees prone to gender-based violence, pressure to engage in survival sex, and accepting work for inhumane wages and conditions. The social and political marginalization of refugees leads to isolation, making individuals vulnerable to traffickers who may pose as friends or romantic partners.
A civil war has caught civilians in the crosshairs of the Syrian regime, rebel groups, and religious extremist groups such as ISIS, spurring millions to flee to neighboring countries. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have together accepted nearly 4 million refugees, and this number is expected to increase to 4.7 million by December. The UNHCR was not prepared for a crisis of such scale. As a result, refugee camps are overcrowded, rendering individuals subject to disease, cold, and hunger. These circumstances leave refugees especially vulnerable to trafficking.
In efforts to find political stability and humane living conditions, many refugees are making the trek to Europe. In fact, just this summer Europe experienced the highest influx of refugees since World War II. As of September 22, 794,000 individuals have applied for asylum in European countries, and this number is projected to increase by the end of the year. In Greece, Italy, and Hungary alone, 549,000 people have arrived, often by boat.
Scholars have begun to document trafficking of Syrian refugees, producing sobering results. Susan Bartels and Kathleen Hamill of Harvard University recently published a report on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon. Based on 67 interviews of families, government officials, and nongovernmental aid agencies, the researchers find that numerous women have been trafficked for sex and children have been exploited for labor. Another study by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development examining the impact of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis on trafficking in persons finds similar results.
Debate surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis–particularly in Europe– continues to focus on the economic consequences of aiding refugees and often hits xenophobic and islamophobic notes. Countries are building fences and using police to crackdown on thousands of refugees attempting to enter the European Union. However, the EU has yet to come up with a solution to the growing issue besides a proposal to relocate 160,000 migrants from Greece, Italy, and Hungary to other parts of Europe. As the crisis continues, the vulnerability of Syrian refugees to trafficking should be considered.
Firas Nasr is the Director of Communications at Human Trafficking Search.
Photo Credit: New York Times