Economic Instability And Conflicts Have Increased Human Trafficking In Iraq
Due to economic instability and militia activity, human trafficking has become an increasingly urgent issue in Iraq.
In 2012, Iraq passed the Law No. 28, the first law specifically against human trafficking which defined this phenomenon as “recruiting, transporting, housing, or receiving individuals by force, threat to use force, or other means, including by coercion, kidnapping, fraud, deception, misuse of power, exchange of money, or privileges to an influential person in order to sell and exploit the trafficked individuals by means of prostitution, sexual abuse, unpaid labor, forced labor, enslavement, beggary, trading of human organs, medical experimentation, or by other means”.
However, women’s-rights groups say the law is routinely ignored and sexual crimes including rape and forced prostitution are still common.
According to the Ministry of Planning report, more than 9% of respondents between the ages of fifteen and fifty-four were victims of sexual violence. Likely, the real number is much higher if we consider the shame attached to denouncing such crimes: the victims are often considered outcasts and can be killed for “dishonoring” their family or their community.
Even though the aim of the law was to contrast the phenomenon, a 2020 report by the U.S. Department of State announced that the Iraqi government had not met the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking yet.
Since 2003, human trafficking in Iraq has spread in a variety of ways: coerced prostitution, exploitation of children, and organ harvesting.
Experts attribute the expansion of the human trade to increased poverty due to financial instability and unemployment and the strength of militias that benefit from and support criminal networks: most victims, indeed, lack financial resources and become vulnerable to traffickers who promise economic benefits. These activities were favored by the weakness of security institutions in Baghdad, which is now on the list of the world’s worst cities to live in.
The militias are influential throughout the country, as they possess the largest share of trafficking networks, providing them with security and legal protection. Additionally, human traffickers took advantage of the global COVID-19 crisis, exploiting loss of income and economic fallout to increase trafficking activity.
Women’s rights in Iraq
Iraq was once the most progressive country in the Middle East regarding women’s rights. In 1959, the Personal Status Law was passed: it restricted polygamy, outlawed child and forced marriages, and improved women’s rights in divorce, child custody, and inheritance.
The 1970 constitution further enshrined equal rights and women’s education and participation in the workforce were actively promoted through welfare policies, such as free childcare.
Successive wars – with Iran, from 1980 to 1988, and then the 1990 Gulf War, followed by thirteen years of international sanctions – reversed the progress made in terms of women’s emancipation with an increase of crimes against them after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
With Saddam Hussein’s fall, religious conservative clerics took the power and parliamentarians passed laws that would give clerics more control over personal matters.
Hassan al-Shammari, a member of the Islamist Fadhila (Virtue) Party and the Justice Minister, introduced in 2013 a bill based on the Shiite Jaafari school of jurisprudence. The bill proposed legalizing marriage for girls by the age of nine, entitling a husband to nonconsensual sex with his wife, and preventing a woman from leaving her home without her husband’s permission.
Despite strong opposition from a few clerics and women’s rights groups, the bill was approved by the Council of Ministers in February 2014.
The situation was exacerbated by the Islamic State’s seizure of much of the country’s northwest, including the cities of Mosul, Ramadi, and Fallujah. The Sunni extremists sexually enslaved some female captives, in particular the ones belonging to the Kurdish-speaking Yazidi minority.
In 2015, Human Rights Watch accused some Shiite militias of engaging in “unfettered abuses against civilians”, including summary executions, torture, and the forced displacement of thousands from their homes. The vulnerability of women and children to trafficking had “gravely increased” in the past year, and security and law-enforcement officials, as well as criminal gangs, were involved in sexual slavery, the U.S. State Department noted in its “Trafficking in Persons” report.
Sex trafficking soared amid the chaos and the prevalence of child marriage rose from 17% in 2006 to 28% in 2018, according to the World Bank. Domestic violence, more likely to afflict child spouses, became widespread and, according to the United Nations, 46% of women in Iraq experience emotional, physical, or sexual violence at home.
What can the Iraqi government do?
The Government of Iraq does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The Iraqi government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the past, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity. These efforts included convicting more traffickers, bolstering the capacity of the Ministry of Interior’s anti-trafficking directorate with additional funding, and increasing law enforcement training to improve officials’ knowledge of anti-trafficking laws.
Human trafficking is a complex matter to deal with as it is caused by overlapping issues. Given this multifaceted nature, all relevant state agencies must collaborate to successfully confront the issue.
First of all, it should prevent the recruitment of children by armed groups and provide the necessary protection and rehabilitation for demobilized child soldiers.
Government agencies should also work to identify victims and provide support through psychosocial counseling, medical care, and legal and financial assistance. At the moment, the Iraqi government is identifying and referring victims to protective services which, for the first time, included referrals to NGOs. But deficiencies in identification and referral procedures, coupled with authorities’ lack of understanding of trafficking, continued to prevent many victims from receiving appropriate protection services.
Finally, the Iraqi government must improve the country’s dire economic situation and provide more job opportunities for young people and girls, who are the main victims of human trafficking.