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Trafficking of Iraqi Women Rampant Despite U.S. Commitment To End It

Unable to support themselves or their households, thousands of Iraqi women have been preyed on by sex traffickers.

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.

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