Human trafficking today is considered one of six types that manifest modern-day slavery; and, especially of sex trafficking. The other ways are bonded labour, forced labour, child slavery, early forced marriage and descent-based slavery.

On the occasion of the UK Anti-Slavery Day 18 October, also coinciding with EU Anti-Trafficking Day, I spoke with Iman Abou-Atta, Founder of the London-based charity SCEME (Social Change through Education in the Middle East) and her colleague Sarah Barnes, to highlight what is happening today in the female sex trafficking situation in the Middle East.

The official definition of human trafficking according to the UN Palermo Protocol: “The recruitment, transportation and harbouring of a person by threat, force, coercion, abduction, deception, or abuse of their vulnerability with the aim to exploit them.”

SCEME: Karamatuna Programme & Consequences of the Arab Spring

Iman Abou-Atta: “We were one of the first NGOs to ever speak in the UK about the trafficking of Arab girls in the Middle East; and, in particular, the plight of Iraqi young girls who were either being trafficked within Iraq itself or were refugees in the camps across the borders.

“The topic had brief coverage in the British newspapers before we published the Karamatuna Report in 2011, but it somehow didn’t capture as much attention as it deserved. At the time, our research team discovered that Iraqi girls as young as 10 or 12 were being taken into Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for sexual exploitation.

“Whereas today as a consequence of the Arab Spring our focus is on the women and underage girls this time being trafficked out of Syria. It is our most urgent task to complete a second phase of the Karamatuna Programme so we can gather all the facts, proof and evidence before we can act and make recommendations.”

In March this year, the UNHCR estimated that the number of Syrians either registered as refugees or waiting to be registered as refugees has now exceeded 1 million.

SCEME: “We are very concerned about Syria especially because so many of the refugees from Iraq went into Syria. So we have a huge group of vulnerable people there who were victims of trafficking or domestic slavery before the conflict in Syria broke out. So now you don’t only have the Syrians themselves who are potentially vulnerable but you have the existing refugees as well.

“Currently, we are hearing lots of stories about what is going on in the camps where the war displaced end up and in particular those based in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. In the Summer 2012, we heard of adverts being posted by men looking for Syrian brides.

“We know that some of these Syrian girls in the camps in Jordan are ending up in Saudi Arabia through the use of the unofficial and temporary Muta’a marriages that are legalised in parts of the Middle East.”

Muta’a marriage is also known as the ‘pleasure marriage’. It is a fixed and usually short-term contract where a specific duration and a monetary compensation are agreed upon in advance. It is a private and verbal exchange marriage between a man and a woman.

SCEME: “This set-up of a sham marriage can last for a couple of weeks, days or even just hours and what is worse is that after they’ve taken away and used, they are then discarded and sent back to their families in the camps and potentially pregnant.

“So you end up having an initial problem of a girl who is sold to an older man for a small amount of money possibly between US $130-250 that the family obviously needs; but then she is pregnant and the family has to deal with the maintenance of her and the child. This girl now cannot even get remarried which is another big problem in the community.

“We have even some anecdotal evidence coming from Lebanon where muta’a marriage is used as just another word for prostitution, so it is literally a two to three hour arrangement.

“The girls involved will have left the refugee camps and become vulnerable in the cities for so many different reasons; but effectively, they end up in forced prostitution. This is something we need to look into further, as at the moment it is anecdotal.”

The SCEME Report on Human Trafficking Laws and Regulations

SCEME will soon be launching their ‘Report on Human Trafficking Laws & Regulations’, which has already been prepared by their legal team and finalised in June 2013.

This looks at how different countries deal with the issue of human trafficking and related laws in Europe, the United States and the Middle East. It also considers European Union standards on trafficking, labour and domestic violence and makes a best to worst comparison analysis.

SCEME: “The aim of this Report will be to help us and other interested organisations to better understand the laws especially on trafficking and domestic slavery on an international level. In particular, we want to know how we can more effectively implement projects and to be able to campaign and lobby so that the laws can better protect women.

“It does a best practice comparison at the end and is a subtle way to lobby Middle Eastern countries so they can get a better ranking and to improve their status in other ways. This is an independent report done by our legal volunteers.

“Yes, it is hard to push the governments, but at least they can become more aware and aim to improve. Ironically, the Report had initially showed Syria as one of the higher ranking places before it fell. Now it has become one of the worst in under a year.”

Note: SCEME is a not-for-profit organisation based in London, established in 2010. SCEME has developed programmes to promote the rights and liberties of women and their children; particularly, those who are refugees or migrants in the MENA region. It also aims to support the same to become active citizens of the world through the provision of educational workshops, training and mentorship.

For more information and how you can get involved:

For more information on UK Anti-Slavery Day:

Note: This article was first publisher circa October 2013