Since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, over a million Iraqis have fled to Syria to escape the violence and poverty in their conflict-ridden country. But now a new specter haunts them — sex trafficking and forced marriage. Iraqi refugees in Syria are increasingly being trafficked into brothels, forced into marriages, or pushed into prostitution as a means of survival. It’s time Secretary of State Clinton helped protect Iraqi refugees from the aftermath of a U.S.-initiated war.
One of those refugees is Um Ali. She fled from Iraq to Syria with her husband and three daughters once war broke out in her home town. In Syria, the family had no money, no connections, and no support. So it wasn’t long before her husband, who had beaten Ali for years, began looking to sell off their only assets — their daughters. Despite the fact that their daughters were young teens, the marriage proposals began coming in, including one offer from an Iraqi man who ran a brothel in the U.S. Thankfully, before he could sell off one of his daughters into marriage or sex trafficking, Ali’s husband was forced to return to Iraq to escape gambling debts in Syria.
Um Ali’s situation is not rare. Upon reaching Syria, many Iraqi refugees find they have no way to earn a living without proper immigration documentation. If women have fled without a male family member, they may be unable to find any form of work. This situation pushes some women unwillingly into prostitution and makes others vulnerable to sex trafficking or forced marriage by male relatives. Even women who managed to scrape together a living on their own in some non-sexual way are often “suspected” of being prostitutes and shunned from family because of that suspicion. So no matter how they survive, female Iraqi refugees are doomed to be damned by society or forced into some form of slavery.
The picture isn’t much rosier for the women and girls who have remained in Iraq. War widows and orphans are often forced to turn to prostitution with no other means of supporting themselves. Others are trafficked into the commercial sex industry and shipped off to other countries in the Middle East. And when the government has identified child sex trafficking victims in prostitution, their response has been to put them in prison for up to 15 years.
However there is one relatively easy step the U.S. State Department can take to help women trafficked into the sex industry during and after the Iraq war: classify them as P-2 refugees. The P-2 group was created to give people in designated “vulnerable populations” (including sex trafficking victims) a way to skip over some of the bureaucracy of getting refugee status and expedite their resettlement to a new country. It’s the same tool that was used to help resettle the children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women created during the Vietnam war. However, the State Department has created no new Iraqi P-2 groups for the thousands of women who are now sex slaves as a result of the war.
Ask Secretary of State Clinton to support Iraqi sex trafficking victims in Syria, Iraq, and the rest of the world.