In August 2010 the United States Department of State released a report on human trafficking around the world. In the report countries were placed in four categories. Tier 1 was a government that admitted that it had a trafficking problem, made a concerted effort to fight it, and met standards set by the U.S. government. Tier 2 were countries that didn’t fully meet the standards, but were trying to address the issue. Tier 2 Watch List were nations that were making an effort, but didn’t meet the standards, had a large number of victims, didn’t provided evidence that they were improving, or put off commitments to do a better job until the next year. Tier 3 were those that didn’t meet the standards and didn’t try to fight trafficking. Iraq was included in the report and placed on the Tier 2 Watch list because it is the source and destination for men, women, and children who are being trafficked.
Prostitution is a major problem in Iraq. Women are sold within the country and to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran, and Yemen. Some are given false promises of work, only to be placed into the sex trade. It’s more common for women to enter into the business because of their relatives or husbands. Some families push their children, both girls and boys, into prostitution because they are poor. Others are forced into temporary marriages that are a front for sexual exploitation. The family gets a dowry from the husband, who then uses his wife as a prostitute, and then the marriage is ended after a period of time. There are anecdotal stories of poor families leaving their girls at the Syrian border hoping that gangs will pick them up, smuggle them across the border where they will be put to work in nightclubs and brothels. Refugees and the displaced are especially vulnerable to this trade.
Forced labor is also common. Men from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Pakistan, Georgia, Jordan, and Uganda, and women from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nepal, and the Philippines are all exploited in Iraq. They work in construction, security, cleaning, and domestic work. Many say that their employers took their passports and documents once they arrived in Iraq, didn’t follow their contracts, or threatened them to keep them working. Some were told that they would be employed in Jordan or the Gulf States, but ended up in Iraq instead. In 2009, authorities found fourteen Ugandan women who thought that they would be sent to a U.S. military base as domestic workers. When they arrived in Iraq, they were put to work for Iraqi families instead, paid less, some were locked in rooms, had their passports taken, and were physically and sexually abused by their labor agent or employers.
Some of the most egregious stories are about Iraqis being used for organ trafficking across the region, and children being taken from orphanages to be sold into slavery. In 2010 for example, the Health Ministry rounded up two groups of nurses in Baghdad and Kirkuk who were kidnapping and selling babies abroad.
According to the State Department, Iraq does not meet its standards nor has it done enough to fight against trafficking. Baghdad has a draft bill in parliament about forced labor, and the 2005 constitution outlaws it, slavery, trafficking, and the sex trade, but it doesn’t have punishments for the crimes. In 2009 the Department of State claimed that Iraq had shown no progress in preventing trafficking, protecting victims, or prosecuting and punishing the perpetrators. For those reasons Iraq was placed in the Tier 2 Watch List category for the second year. The State Department suggested that Baghdad pass the anti-forced labor law, step up its investigations and punishments, train officials to deal with the issues, launch an awareness campaign to educate the public about the problem, protect the victims, ban forced marriages, and pass regulations for foreign laborers. Although the Iraqi government has talked about some of these options, trafficking may not be a big enough priority for the parliament to deal with any time soon, and enforcement of any legislation is a major issue as well. The police for instance, are more involved with manning checkpoints, and countering terrorists and insurgents right now than dealing with prostitution and forced labor. Corruption is also an issue as gangs can offer incentives to authorities to look the other way. Finally, as long as Iraq remains a relatively poor country in the region, these illegal practices will likely continue because there are no legitimate alternatives for people hoping to make a living.
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, And Labor, “2009 Human Rights Report: Iraq,” U.S. State Department, 3/11/10
U.S. Department of State, “The 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report,” August 2010