Syria: First shelter for trafficked people opens in Damascus

A 2008 US report said Syria is “a destination and transit country for women and children trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour”.
Human trafficking is only just starting to gain widespread public attention in the region: Jordan passed a law to penalise people trafficking only last week; a similar Egyptian law is still in draft form, and other countries like Lebanon still have no specific legislation against people traffickers.
A shelter for people trafficking victims has just opened in an undisclosed location in Damascus. It is the first of its kind in Syria, which has only recently recognised human trafficking as a problem but still has no specific laws against it.

The new shelter has 20 beds, a communal area, a kitchen and a bathroom. Further rooms are for medical treatment, psychological care and legal advice. A second shelter is planned for the northern city of Aleppo.

The shelter is “pioneering work”, according to Laila Tomeh, national programme officer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in Syria. “In 2005 Syria set up a national committee to draft a law on counter-trafficking and to look into establishing a shelter,” she said. “Before then the Middle East did not talk about counter-trafficking as an issue relevant to it; you couldn’t sense a problem. A few years on and Syria has one shelter open, another under way, and a draft law in the cabinet,” Tomeh said.

The international nature of trafficking means it is no longer viable for any country to ignore, according to Ibrahim Daraji, professor of international law at Damascus University, who authored a recent study of the Syrian laws that could cover human trafficking in the absence of specific legislation. Syria’s geographical location, in the centre of the Middle East and close to conflict zones such as Iraq, makes it especially susceptible to traffickers, Daraji said in his report.

Syria has been slow to tackle human trafficking despite being party to relevant international conventions, according to the 2008 US State Department’s report on trafficking in persons. The report accuses the Syrian government of failing to implement the minimum required counter-trafficking protection. The Syrian Foreign Ministry said the report was “based on political considerations” and “not objective”.

UN definition of people trafficking

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

"Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” (Article 3, para (a) of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.)

A lack of research means the nature of Syria’s victims and whether it is predominantly a country of origin, transition or destination is unknown. The 2008 US report said Syria is “a destination and transit country for women and children trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour”. Domestic workers, it said, came from southeast Asia and Africa, often lured under false promises of jobs and better living conditions. Some countries, such as the Philippines, have banned their citizens from seeking domestic work in Syria due to the lack of protection. Women from eastern Europe and Iraq are believed to be trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Influx of Iraqis

The influx of Iraqis following the war and sectarian strife in Iraq has been a huge impetus for the shelter in Syria. During interviews UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) officials identified refugees whom they suspected had been induced to enter the country under false pretences. Most were women and children.

“We will certainly be referring people,” said Carole Laleve, spokesperson for the UNHCR. “In 2008 we identified over 800 women who were victims of sexual gender-based violence. Some of those are thought to be victims of trafficking but we have no figures on how many. Anecdotal evidence suggests the victims in the Iraqi community are women, and the exploitation of a sexual nature.”

Evidence from other refugee organisations paints the same picture. The Good Shepherd Convent in Damascus has cared for Iraqi women who have been sold into prostitution by their own husbands, according to a report by in 2005.

The Damascus shelter

Such agencies will refer victims to the Damascus shelter, which is run by the Association for Women’s Role Development (AWRD), a Syrian NGO. “The shelter caters for residents’ daily needs - food, clothes and general care - as well as ongoing support,” says Tomeh. Victims of trafficking are frequently traumatised by their experience, compounded by being in a foreign country without family and friends and sometimes with no knowledge of the local language. The shelter, says Tomeh, will offer psychological support, medical and legal care.

Once more is known about the demographics of Syria’s share of the four million people the UN estimates to be the global figure of trafficked persons, more specific services can be put in place. “The Syrian government is very supportive,” says Tomeh. “Once the law is passed we will work to raise awareness and train judges and law enforcement officials.”

The current predicament of many victims, say NGOs who prefer anonymity, is to be stranded with few resources and even fewer rights, sometimes ending up in Syrian jails for lack of papers. Workshops across the Middle East continue to raise awareness of people trafficking and counter-initiatives among NGOs and governments. The Arab League has also proposed an initiative to work towards an Arab convention against human trafficking, with ministers due to meet in Saudi Arabia later in 2009.

02 February 2009