US Dodges Obligation to Help Iraqi Women Trafficked into Sexual Slavery

US Dodges Obligation to Help Iraqi Women Trafficked into Sexual Slavery

US Dodges Obligation to Help Iraqi Women Trafficked into Sexual Slavery

The burgeoning sex industries in Syria and Jordan are thriving because of the Iraq War. The US could speed resettlement for Iraqi women who are trafficked—but it hasn’t.


Two months ago, the State Department released its 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report (TiP Report), laying out a picture of human trafficking across the globe. In it, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to ending this scourge—and for the first time, included an evaluation of anti-trafficking measures in our own country.

Our duties, however, do not end at our borders.

Currently, more than 50,000 Iraqi women in Jordan and Syria are trapped in sexual servitude and have no possibility of escape. The burgeoning sex industries in Syria and Jordan are thriving because of instability produced by the Iraq War—laying responsibility directly at the feet of the United States.

Countless Iraqi women and girls were widowed or orphaned by wartime casualties. And the official divorce rate, particularly for mixed-sect marriages, doubled following the US invasion—likely concealing still more unofficial separations. Both situations left many more women as the sole heads of their households—and in social alienation, as traditional support systems fractured under the pressure of civil strife. Insecure and alone, many fled and continue to flee to Syria and Jordan.

Prospects in Syria and Jordan, however, are bleak. Neither government recognizes incoming Iraqis as refugees or grants them the right to work. Some Iraqis are granted temporary visas to enter Syria, but visa restrictions were tightened in 2007, rendering most Iraqis ineligible. Unable to support themselves or their households, thousands of Iraqi women have been preyed on by sex traffickers taking advantage of this chaotic environment. Women and girls are recruited in Syria and Jordan as cabaret dancers and then forced into prostitution after their employers confiscate their passports and confine them to their work premises; others are abducted on the streets of Iraq and trafficked into Syria and Jordan to work in the sex industry. Desperate Iraqis traffic female family members, some as young as 11 years old, into Iraq’s neighboring countries to pay debts or resolve disputes. And some young Iraqi girls are sold into temporary muta’a marriages, where the girl’s family receives a dowry from the husband, and the "marriage," essentially a short-term prostitution arrangement, ends at a specified time. When these women arrive at their husbands’ homes in Jordan or Syria, they often find themselves caught in a trafficking ring where they are sexually exploited and never allowed to return home. While these temporary marriages existed before the Iraq War began, the chaos and desperation produced by the war have made muta’a arrangements much more prevalent. Even Iraqi families that migrate to Syria or Jordan intact often dissolve under the economic and cultural pressures of the refugee lifestyle, leaving children as easy prey for sex traffickers.

Yet despite the clear path that turns Iraqi mothers and daughters into prostitutes against their will, these trafficked women have received scant attention from American policymakers who have the power to alleviate these women’s suffering and condemn the countries that allow it to flourish. The solution lies in expedited resettlement: the United States can protect these vulnerable women by making Iraqi trafficked women a priority resettlement group and putting greater pressure on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to follow suit. Doing this would finally provide Iraq trafficking victims with a resettlement option that is fast and effective enough to actually help them.

Meaningful American support would help counteract Syrian and Jordanian indifference towards these women. Both governments are only beginning to admit that trafficking is a rampant crime within their borders. According to the TiP Report, neither country fully complies "with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking." Although the Syrian government recently acknowledged the broader problem of human trafficking in its country and passed legislation recognizing human trafficking as a crime, the State Department reports that this has not led to any increased enforcement. Furthermore, referral of victims to Syria’s two women’s shelters remains "ad hoc and inconsistent." Jordan also recently finalized a general anti-trafficking action plan, though the State Department confirms that the plan is "inadequate" and highlights the problematic absence of shelters for victims of trafficking in Jordan. Neither Syria nor Jordan has specifically acknowledged the problem of Iraqi women trafficked into their countries, or taken steps to provide these victims with shelter or aid. In fact, rather than finding shelter in Syria or Jordan, some Iraqi prostitutes find themselves arrested and deported to Iraq as criminals, where they are killed to preserve their family’s honor.

The United States should have provided a means of escape from this hopeless situation long ago—by classifying Iraqi trafficking victims as a "priority-two" (P-2) refugee resettlement group, thereby expediting their resettlement process. This is the best way to create a fast track out of the horrific conditions these women face.

The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2008 gave the Secretary of State the authority to designate "vulnerable populations" of Iraqis as P-2 refugees. P-2 refugees apply directly to the US Refugee Admissions Program, skipping the typical bureaucratic hurdles of first applying to UNHCR to determine their refugee status and then being assigned to a resettlement country. P-2 status refugees must show they are part of a designated vulnerable group, but once they have done so, they are granted resettlement status. The United States has used priority status in the past to help refugee groups whose dislocation began after American military operations. The clearest example was America opening its borders to "Amerasians"—children of American soldiers who remained in Southeast Asian after the Vietnam War. Congress has authorized the State Department to take similar action for Iraqi refugees, yet the State Department has created no new Iraqi P-2 groups since the legislation passed in 2008 and designated "Iraqis who worked for the US government, contractors, or US-based NGOs or media organizations, and their family members" and "persecuted religious or minority groups with close family members in the United States" as P-2 categories. This inaction stands in sharp contrast not only to the severe needs of Iraqi trafficking victims, but also to the responsibility America bears for their situation.

Beyond solidifying its own commitment to assisting Iraqi trafficking victims, the United States must encourage the UNHCR to focus on trafficking victims in Jordan and Syria. Our work with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project has shown us that UNHCR is currently ill-equipped to provide trafficking victims urgent resettlement in life-threatening situations. In Syria, where trafficking is a particularly severe problem, refugees can expect meager monetary aid and a two-year wait before being resettled. Worse still, self-identifying as a trafficking victim only makes the wait longer by adding steps to the resettlement process. For victims seeking protection from UNHCR, this delay means further sexual exploitation, if not a lost chance at resettlement. The United States, which provides UNHCR with roughly one third of its funding and resettles more refugees than any other nation, has the clout to lean on UNHCR to streamline the resettlement process for trafficking victims in Syria and Jordan.

The United States is now preparing the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq. However, the Iraqi women and girls trapped in sexual slavery will remain long after the last American soldier leaves unless we are willing to accept our responsibility to alleviate this problem. When Secretary of State Clinton announced that the TiP Report would now judge the United States "based on the same standards to which we hold other countries," she added that "this human rights abuse is universal and no one should claim immunity from its reach or from the responsibility to confront it." We cannot abdicate our responsibility towards these women, and must provide a safe and rapid means for their resettlement. Furthermore, America must ensure that UNHCR addresses the inefficiencies that make resettlement so difficult for these women. It is not enough to watch passively as these women struggle with a broken refugee resettlement process. We have an obligation to mend that system—to remove the shackles holding these women down.

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