“My husband beats me every day, forcibly subjecting me to engage in sexual acts in hotels and residences. He then brings me back home, repeating the same cycle after hitting me with his belt,” Nada recounts in a tone that almost sounds neutral, reflecting the torment she endures in Karbala, Iraq. Her existence there has drained both her soul and body. She goes on, “I am about to commit suicide, but I still cling to the hope of escaping this nightmare.”
Nada, thirty-five, comes from a village in the Latakia countryside on the Syrian coast. She graduated in the Arabic Language Department from the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences at Tishreen University in Syria. Six years ago, she found herself widowed, her late husband having been a former Syrian fighter in the National Defense militia. Subsequently, she married an Iraqi man affiliated with one of the Iraqi militias and relocated to his homeland with aspirations of building a stable and comfortable life. However, she soon discovered that she had become ensnared in a contemporary form of “slave trade.” For Nada, the only hope left is to arrive at a place where she is unknown.
“I long to embark on a new life with my son, whom I’ve only seen through the phone for the past two years. I crave a life marked by dignity, humanity, and respect. I am willing to pay any price to make that happen,” she declares.
One Among Many Victims
Nada’s ordeal is not unique in the Iraqi diaspora. Over recent years, numerous Syrian women have had their lives shattered, forced into the sex trade under duress from husbands, employers, or hosts. The majority of spouses in cases under scrutiny in this investigation have ties to Iraqi militias operating in Syria or have affiliations with them.
Nada’s encounter with her Iraqi husband, known as “Hajj Khader,” took place during a visit to the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in the Damascus countryside in the autumn of 2022. Widowed for five years, her first husband fell in the battles of the eastern Aleppo countryside in 2017 while fighting with the “National Defense” militia against the extremist Islamic State organization.
Her initial marriage wasn’t a matter of choice but rather a yearning for companionship as she felt the weight of age at thirty, having experienced a series of unsuccessful love affairs.
In the Sayyida Zeinab area, south of Damascus, Nada drew the attention of numerous Iraqi and Iranian fighters exchanging interests during visits and trade. The region hosts various offices offering services to visitors, including accommodation options like hotels and rented apartments. However, these advertised services often conceal more lucrative, undisclosed activities, such as permanent or temporary marriage services. According to Taha, an Iraqi lawyer in the area (using a pseudonym), the demand for these services is driven by the “beauty and liberation of Syrian girls” and the significantly lower dowries in Syria, ranging from one to three thousand dollars, compared to Iraq’s ten to twenty thousand dollars for dowries of Iraqi women.”
Matrimony with the “Militia Blade”
Hajj Khadr, according to Nada, served as a fighter in the Al-Nujaba Movement and stood three years senior to her. Their acquaintance began fortuitously near the shrine, where he initiated courtship with both her and her child. A connection blossomed, and he swiftly proposed marriage, urging her to relocate to Iraq. He pledged to cater to her every need and regality in one of his two houses. With ownership of lucrative lands and commercial interests, he boasted a substantial income. Under the influence of the lavish gifts he showered upon her and her family, she found herself believing his promises. However, her disillusionment set in as she discovered his deceit, lamenting, “We Syrians are vulnerable, ravaged after the war, and everyone sought to exploit us.”
In the spring of 2023, Al-Hajj proposed to her, presenting a dowry for both her and them. Her father, residing in a coastal village, was enticed and promptly agreed, securing a thousand dollars that helped settle his debts. Unconcerned about guarantees for his widowed daughter and her son, he, as Nada puts it, considered it “his last concern.” To appease her, he agreed to have her child stay with him, “and he did it for the money,” she says.
This state of abandonment, as Nada describes as “selling” by the family, is not unique to her but is echoed in the experiences of others. Lama, a young woman from the countryside of Masyaf in her twenties, left her fiancé, Sumer, discharged from compulsory military service last year, to marry a man in his late fifties from Iraq.
The groom enticed Lama’s father with a bit of cash. The former fiancé elaborates, “The groom is from Karbala. He visited her family’s house a few times, settling a few million (less than a thousand dollars) in her father’s debts. He even purchased gold for her and promised a car and a life in her own house in Iraq, away from her former spouse.” Lama’s Iraqi groom has strong connections with the militias, thanks to his ownership of a lorry shuttling between Iraq and Syria, offering “special services” to the militias, as explained by Sommer who assaulted his Iraqi rival, leading to a three-day arrest. Were it not for the sympathy of the Masyaf police station members, he might have been killed after threats from militia factions associated with the groom.
Almost a year after Lama’s move to Iraq, communication with her family ceased, according to her former fiancé. “Al-Hajj” disappeared, no longer gracing Lama’s family’s house with gifts. Whenever her father attempted to call Lama or Al-Hajj, the response was: “The requested number is out of service.” Lawyer Murhaf from Latakia suggests that the family should have presented a proposal to the Syrian Public Prosecutor, outlining the facts for legal follow-up. However, the family rejected the idea to avoid “scandals,” especially since Lama’s mother comes from a notable family in the region. The father refrained, fearing retaliation from his Iraqi “son-in-law” who continued his actions.
Iraqi fighters in Syria constitute one of the largest nationalities among their counterparts. They have been in Syria since 2011, emerging under Iranian sponsorship to suppress protests. Over time, their involvement extended to supporting and participating in battles against various armed organizations that surfaced as the protest transformed into a military conflict.
The Current State of the Militias
Presently, tens of thousands of fighters of different nationalities are stationed in Syria, with Iraqi militias being the most prominent. Obtaining accurate statistics is challenging, given the ever-changing numbers influenced by factors such as shifts in funding, fluctuations in the intensity of battles, and variations in regional political conditions. Additionally, the continuous movement of defections, departures, and new recruits within the militias further complicates the situation. Despite these challenges, recent statistics indicate that the number of Iraqi militias in Syria exceeds 15.
These fighters are spread across Deir ez-Zor, Aleppo, the Damascus countryside, Homs, and southern Syria, as well as around Shiite shrines in various cities. Fighters receive a minimum of $300 per month, a significant sum when compared to the income levels in Syria. The exact distribution and movements of these militias are subject to constant change, reflecting the dynamic nature of the conflict and its geopolitical implications.
Fishing in Troubled Economic Waters
Generally, the worsening economic conditions and the grooms’ influence play a pivotal role in the willingness of Syrian women of such marriages, often with the consent, and sometimes under the pressure, of their families. Fawz Jahjah, a lawyer and social activist based in Latakia, where many such marriages are documented, states, “In numerous instances, parents and the bride choose to ignore when it comes to check the reality of the husband, because of money and gifts. Furthermore, there is a significant incentive for parents, especially the male members, to establish relations with the militias. These relations prove beneficial in the current Syrian circumstances, particularly in the deteriorating economic situation.”
“The motives of the militia members differ in their pursuit of such marriages, but it’s evident that, for the most part and across various militias, it’s treated as a business transaction involving a commodity, supply, and demand. It’s not about cross-border love stories, and the demand for them goes against the established societal norms in Syria.”
Fawz Jahjah, a lawyer and community activist based in Latakia.
In other instances, of greater concern to us, these men seek “new desirable goods in the white flesh market, transporting them to Iraq for profits at the expense of Syrian women. They either marry them temporarily during their stay in Syria, and then leave, or take their wives with them to Iraq, to the unknown,” explains Rola, a lawyer residing in Damascus.
She highlights that “through their prolonged involvement in the Syrian conflict, the militias have established various relationships, ranging from economic and social interests to searching for wives or mistresses. The militias, being foreign to the land, people, and traditions, are often compelled to adhere to legal processes.”
This phenomenon is exacerbated by the shared challenges of conflict, displacement, economic instability, and poverty between Syria and Iraq. The rampant sex trade in post-war Iraq has heightened the demand for women across different regions. They become the easiest and most valuable commodity in this trade, coupled with corruption in security authorities and political issues in both countries, as explained by lawyer Fawz Jahjah.
Cross-Border Marriages on the Upswing
Beyond militia fighters, the official influx of Iraqis crossing the Syrian border has notably increased, and expectations suggest a doubling of this number. Syrian facilities, including the recent provision of direct entry visas at land, sea, and air crossings, contribute to this surge, according to the Iraqi embassy in Damascus.
Nada ventured to Iraq after officially registering her marriage in the civil and Sharia Court in Latakia, facilitated by a Syrian lawyer. According to a local transactions expert in Latakia, marrying a Syrian woman to an Iraqi necessitates registration in both the civil and Sharia courts, along with the civil registry affiliated with the girl’s family. Additionally, the marriage must be recorded with the district mayor, responsible for creating a register for Syrian women married to foreigners and Arabs. The husband’s details, based on his recent identification document, are then sent to the Criminal Security Branch for verification.
To secure a visa, the marriage contract requires authentication by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ensuring that Iraq grants a visa to the Syrian woman married to an Iraqi, with the children acquiring Iraqi citizenship instead of Syrian.
Attempts to contact the Syrian embassy in Baghdad via its WhatsApp application to inquire about official figures for documented cases of cross-national marriages went unanswered.
Latakia as an Example
Security instructions mandate local mukhtars in Syria to maintain records of marriages to foreigners, submitting them to local and security authorities. The records provide an approximate count of officially registered cases of marriages to foreigners. In a popular Latakia neighborhood with a population of around 30,000, the mukhtar reported 85 recorded cases of official marriages with foreigners between 2016 and 2022. Of these, 65 were Iraqi-Syrian marriages, roughly three-quarters of the total, averaging ten to eleven marriages per year or approximately one marriage per month.
In the Al-Datour neighborhood of Latakia with a population of about 60,000, the mukhtar recorded 135 marriages of foreigners from Syria over the same period. Ninety of these were Iraqi marriages to Syrians, translating to roughly one marriage per month. Applying a similar measure to the governorates of Damascus, its countryside, and Aleppo, where the highest number of Iraqis reside, the estimated percentage is eighty to one hundred marriages annually.
It’s anticipated that many marriages remain unregistered officially, known as “virtual marriages.” These marriages, recognised under Islamic law, lack civil documentation and have become more prevalent amidst the ongoing war, sometimes resembling temporary unions. Lawyer Samaher Ahmed from Latakia explains that “virtuous” marriages can “commence and conclude discreetly,” with some fighters using it as a legitimate means to avoid accusations of adultery. Commonly chosen by married individuals due to its brevity, impermanence, and absence of offspring, partners in these unions may be divorced or widowed.
Lawyer Saad al-Din al-Ghanim, also from Latakia, clarifies that “external contracts” refer to legally recognised marriages among Muslims, officiated by mosque imams based on their sect. This contract may be formalised in Iraq with an official marriage certificate if the wife travels there with her husband.
Al-Ghanim suggests that injustices can occur when Iraqi husbands face resistance from wives unwilling to travel to Iraq. Disputes arise as there’s no obligation for the wife to travel, and, typically, she’s the financial beneficiary of the dowry. As a result, some Iraqis include a condition in the marriage contract, waiving half of the wife’s financial rights if she is prevented from travelling.
The Cost of Virginity
Iman, a 32-year-old woman, epitomizes the distressing journey that often culminates in women and girls being ensnared in the sex trade. Speaking via WhatsApp to the investigator, she shares her harrowing tale.
“I am from the Jableh countryside but lived in Salamiya, studying up to the ninth grade. I met an Iraqi man in his late thirties affiliated with the Asaib al-Haq group, and our relationship evolved to a promised marriage.” When Iman’s family learned of the situation, they raised no objections but sought assurances for the marriage. “We officially registered our marriage in the Latakia court in 2020, and then I accompanied him to Iraq.”
In Baghdad, Iman discovered her husband had two previous marriages and forced her to cohabit with them. She recalls, “I was a virgin. To my surprise, he never approached me. A week after my arrival, a man claiming to be his friend came to the house and invited him to dinner. The next morning, I woke up naked in the friend’s arms.”
She adds, “My husband had slipped a sleeping pill into my drink without me noticing. I screamed and struggled, but he overpowered me, threatening to publish a video of me with the man if I spoke out. He’d present it to the police as evidence of my betrayal, promising to erase me from existence.”
The horrifying ordeal repeated: “I remained confined in the apartment for three months, waiting for my husband to return with a new person,” according to Iman. She later grasped that her “husband” had essentially “traded her virginity” for a sum that could be as high as five thousand US dollars. A new acquaintance explained that to her, guiding her into the path of working as a prostitute.
Fleeing from Baghdad, Iman sought refuge with a Syrian friend she had previously met on Facebook. This friend introduced her to work in an area known as Al-Bataween, where brothels are prevalent. Iman found this work “bearable and conducted in a dignified manner.” Immersed in this life, she earned about two hundred dollars a week, sufficient for sustenance and contemplation on returning to Syria.
Two years later, Iman returned to Damascus, concealing the truth from her family, only mentioning that she had divorced and planned to find work in the city. She disclosed that she had filed for divorce and awaits a ruling.
In many accounts, husbands transport their new wives to Iraq to exploit them in prostitution, utilizing various methods to connect with clients. This includes real-life encounters and advertising on platforms like Facebook or Telegram, with specialized pages catering to the request of clients for “Syrian and Iraqi women.” Sheikha Asma, residing in Iraq, justifies this as “permissible,” receiving payment for each “night stay, temporary marriage, evening party, or car ride,” ranging between 15 and 25 dollars, credited to her mobile phone.
Other Methods of “Attraction”
Apart from marriage, various strategies are employed to entice Syrian women to Iraq. This includes approaching them during visits to Shiite shrines in Damascus or other areas. Virtual methods through social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram are also utilised.
One Facebook advertisement sought “girls to work in Iraq for a monthly salary of eight million liras ($600) with accommodation and meals” (attached photo), a tempting offer with undisclosed implications.
In a second advertisement (attached photo), a “housekeeper” position with an attractive salary was featured, and in a third, a young Iraqi man in Baghdad directly proposed marriage to a Syrian woman.
Victims in Search of a Livelihood
Laila, a 39-year-old university graduate, found herself among those seeking a means of livelihood in Iraq to support herself and her family. “I am from the Jableh countryside with six sisters and three brothers, half of whom are unemployed, financial difficulties arose after my father’s retirement from the army. I connected with a person involved with an Iraqi Shiite group in the Damascus who offered me the opportunity to learn the hairdressing profession. After six months of hesitation, her Iraqi “boyfriend” covered the cost (around two million liras) for her training. Having made a passport and visa to Erbil, she received everything at her doorstep, including a work contract.
Upon arriving in Iraq, the man assisted her in renting an apartment and proposed marriage, a proposal she declined. “While we maintained a sexual relationship, I made it clear I wasn’t interested in marriage. Honestly, he did not harm me. I paid back what he paid for me and he left me alone” she says. Eventually, circumstances soured as work conditions deteriorated during the pandemic. She continues “a friend of mine suggested working as a waitress in a nightclub, and despite initial hesitation, I agreed to avoid returning to Syria. Later, I worked as a dancer in the same club from 2021.”
Laila keeps her current job a secret from her family, sending them 200 $ every month. She explains, “I think if they saw me dancing, they would have slaughtered me.” Despite the challenges and the nature of her work, her focus is on accumulating money to facilitate her journey to Europe. Unfazed by potential challenges, she adds, “Frankly, I no longer have a problem. I am interested in collecting money and traveling to Europe as soon as possible. I now reside in a new location, having ceased working as a hairdresser.”
As for Manar, aged 37, she previously worked as an anesthesiologist’s assistant at Jableh Governmental Hospital, shouldering the responsibility of caring for her family. Faced with a worsening economic situation and her father’s retirement, she sought a job contract in Iraq through an employment agency, with the promise of work in the nursing field.
Upon arrival at Baghdad airport, the Iraqi employment official inspected her passport, retaining it after leaving the airport. Eventually, he coerced her into working as a caregiver for his elderly mother, offering a monthly wage of two hundred dollars, inclusive of accommodation at his mother’s house. His brother’s attempted assaults led Manar to contemplate escape once she secured her passport.
Her attempts were eventually successful, but she found herself homeless in Baghdad, struggling to find work or accommodation. While navigating the city’s budget hotels, Manar encountered a woman who exploited her vulnerable situation, coercing her into engaging in sexual activities with individuals brought to the hotel and stealing her wages. Ultimately, with the help of fellow Syrians, Manar managed to secure sufficient funds and return to her home country.
What does Syrian law say?
According to lawyer Anwar Muhammad from Latakia, the actions of these individuals fall under the “trafficking persons” or “human trafficking” laws. “These terms are used interchangeably to describe a crime where traffickers exploit individuals, forcing them into sex for personal gain. If a person under 18 is involved in a commercial sexual act, it is deemed a crime regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion is involved, and the victim’s consent is irrelevant.”
The Syrian “Anti-Trafficking Persons” decree, issued in 2010, defines trafficking as luring, transporting, deporting, harboring, or receiving persons for illegal acts in exchange for material or moral gain. This includes kidnapping and prostitution. The challenge lies in determining if someone has benefited from facilitating these crimes, as each case is unique and requires individual scrutiny by the judge.
Over 180 countries, including Syria, have ratified the “United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking Persons,” outlining obligations for governments to prevent and combat trafficking. This involves creating specialized departments within agencies responsible for prevention, such as Criminal Security and the Ministry of Social Affairs in Syria.
Additionally, the Syrian Penal Code explicitly declares “prostitution as against the law,” with penalties determined by factors such as age, coercion, luring, deception, incitement to debauchery, and profiting from prostitution.
There are some “survivors”
Following her husband’s death in a 2014 battle in the Aleppo countryside, 28-year-old Samah contemplated relocating to her hometown on the Syrian coast, particularly as her two-year marriage had not yet brought children into the picture.
Upon the completion of the legal waiting period, Samah was unexpectedly visited by “an Iraqi individual familiar with my late husband. He brought a sum of money from the leader of the Al-Nujaba group, with whom my husband had received training in Iran. This visit occurred in the presence of my elder brother.”
Samah continues, “subsequently, my brother proposed the idea of marrying this man, emphasizing his capabilities, good relations with intelligence and the state, and his desire for a lawful marriage in Aleppo.” After several meetings with him in her brother’s presence, Samah consented to the marriage, primarily due to economic pressures. They formalized the marriage through a lawyer, agreeing that she would wear the veil, live in a rented house in Aleppo, and her husband would visit every two weeks for a few days, returning to work in Jabal Azzan – Road near Aleppo International Airport. This arrangement lasted for three years, during which she gave birth to two children.
In 2018, Samah’s husband abruptly left the house and has not returned since. “Feeling that day was the last time I would see him, I discovered he had left to Iraq after his contract ended. My brother advised against travelling to Iraq, prompting me to file for divorce. I received no alimony and returned to my family with her two sons”, she says.
The crime persists
Despite the lack of updates from numerous Syrian women who have travelled to Iraq, “marriages persist, and the girls are not survivors in any way,” asserts lawyer Fawz Jahjah. Drawing on her personal experience working in Iraq in her legal capacity, Jahjah highlights the degrading treatment she faced, attributed to the perception of Syrians as desperate for money due to hunger, siege, and war.
Militia men benefit from this dehumanizing trade, exploiting the lack of societal protections for women in the host country, branding expatriate women as “prostitutes.” The stereotype assumes that leaving families, husbands, and homes must be driven by immoral motives.
In Syria, there’s no hotline for reporting human trafficking or cases of women forced into sex work abroad. It’s uncommon for Syrian women in Iraq to turn to civil or human rights organizations to report forced prostitution. Even within Syria, there’s hesitation to approach the judiciary or disclose their experiences due to societal pressure that tends to automatically criminalize women. There’s also a fear of family reprisals, which, in similar cases, might escalate to the point of “honour killings.”