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Syria and Iraq: Hotbeds of Horror

Bianca de Bortoli

With the conflict in Syria showing no signs of cessation, the sub-state armed groups and their ideologies continue to plague the country and all those remaining. As stories of sex slavery, forced labour and kidnappings continue to emerge, questions of accountability are permeating the international arena.

Most notably, since the eastern governorates of Ar-Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour were taken by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); the Islamic State (IS), and daesh in Arabic – the country’s ranking as a transit and destination country for forced labour and sexual exploitation continues to significantly increase. The outbreak of violence in March 2011, the deteriorating economy, and peoples’ subsequent inability to acquire their daily needs, has seen the Syrian people take matters into their own hands.

So what exactly does this look like in numbers?

According to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, 11.5% of the population having been killed or injured, with roughly 470,000 deaths since the start of the conflict. This would be the equivalent of the entire Indigenous population in Australia or 3% of Australia’s (23 million) population. What must be noted is that the conflict in Syria and Iraq are not mutually exclusive, and with that, nor is the desperation evident in the plight leading them towards Europe.

In an attempt to seek sanctuary from the battlefield consuming their backyards, the violence has served as a catalyst for the transition from refugees to prey for human traffickers. Often handing over all of their savings and possessions in the hope for a better life in Western Europe, the reality is that it’s often for nothing. Deception and greed characterises the illicit trade, and there is no shortage of stories which demonstrate the role of Syria and Iraq as a hotbed for trafficking within Syria, Iraq and beyond to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, UAE, Iran, and as far as Yemen. While trafficking has found its place within the region, since 2011, December 2015 figures highlighted the internal displacement of over 6.6 million Syrians, and the external displacement of over 4.6 million that continues to be driven by the use of trafficking as a weapon of war.

Groups such as ISIL continue to use trafficking as a tool for the recruitment of children who later become soldiers waging war on the front lines. Additionally, the subjugation of women and minorities is best highlighted in the stories emerging from the Yazidi community in Iraq. While the media have become very focused on the egregious human rights violations being committed by ISIL, they are not the only group responsible for the industry’s success. Pro-government militias and the Syrian Army have also been reported to be forcibly recruiting Syrian boys as sources of human intelligence: strategically using them as informants in order to navigate opposition locations prior to battle. As the reports of trafficking, forced labour and sex slavery continue to emerge, the question of accountability and the documentation of evidence continues to become of paramount importance.

Enacting international criminal justice alongside parallel peace talks while a conflict is still active appears as nothing more than a representation of clouded ambition. However, by contrast, the notion of ‘positive complementarity’, that is, the use of international bodies such as the International Criminal Court as a tool to actively catalyse domestic processes, in this case, has no more feasibility. In order for there to be any hope of justice, there first needs to be a framework for it to be housed. Until then, victims are likely to remain susceptible to further exploitation with prospects of accountability existing as no more than a vague concept.

Where to from here?

The history of international justice does not provide the backdrop of assurance that one would hope. Without doubt there needs to be increased focus on the illicit trade and establishing a framework within which perpetrators can be held accountable. The continuation of documenting these atrocities remains of utmost importance, although there are few organisations currently active in this field. Despite United Nations Security Council resolutions, inconsistencies continue to permeate both international requirements and national legislation. With prescribed penalties for trafficking insufficient, the international community’s attempt to deter traffickers shall continue as an uphill battle, with the ongoing trial and tribulations of those affected hidden in plain sight.