Refugees Are Becoming the Face of Modern Slavery in the Middle East

Syrian refugee girls sit at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 'Child Friendly Spaces' (CFSs) in the Zaatari refugee
Syrian refugee girls sit at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 'Child Friendly Spaces' (CFSs) in the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian border with Syria, on March 8, 2014. The CFSs used as temporary supports that contribute to the care and protection of children in emergencies, responding to childrens rights to protection, psychosocial well-being, and non-formal education. Jordan is home to more than 500,000 Syrian refugees. AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

As we reflect on the plight -- but also the amazing survival instincts of refugees today -- World Refugee Day, we should look closely at the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region -- a region responsible for calculating the globe's highest refugee figures in 2013.

The bleak numbers represent the high human cost of a series of bloody humanitarian emergencies erupting from sectarian and civil conflicts. The Syrian crisis alone has seen almost 2.6 million refugees flee to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. According to UN data, this figure is set to rise exponentially by 2015.

These neighboring countries are urgently grappling with unprecedented numbers of refugees. Whilst their governments focus on basic necessities -- shelter, food, water and security -- opportunistic traffickers, would-be labor exploiters and men in the marriage market, reap the rewards of refugees desperate for economic opportunities.

In Jordan, home to some 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, many distressed families have felt unable to refuse lucrative offers from wealthy men of Gulf States seeking underage brides. Despite Jordan's legal age of marriage being 18, a Sharia law loophole allows unions of children as young as 15, a loophole being systematically manipulated by wealthy men. Not only are young girls being sold into marriage, the marriages are effectively shams and more apparently, sexual servitude -- whereby the wealthy husband divorces his wife after a few days.

Indeed, in 2013 alone, the Sharia courts in Jordan documented 737 marriages involving Syrian girls under the age of 18, compared to 42 cases in 2011, when the Syrian crisis began.

The risks of child marriage are but one of the risks of modern slavery plaguing the refugee population. Mothers are forced to question: do I send my child to school, or encourage them to beg to help feed the family? Fathers are forced to ask: do I risk my refugee status and work illegally?

Only half of Syrian refugee boys are attending school, jeopardizing future hopes of rebuilding Syria with a generation of educated children. Whilst the Jordanian labor market, weak even before the Syrian crisis, is crumbling under the pressure of the influx of illegally employable men willing to work for low wages, in deteriorating conditions.

It is paramount that amidst the devastating chaos of the movement of millions of refugees in MENA, governments of the region recognise the vulnerability of refugee populations to human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery. With this recognition governments should work together to create a coordinated MENA regional response to human trafficking. It is the only way to uncover the international trafficking networks that run deep across borders.

In addition to this effort, civil society groups working in refugee populations both in Jordan and across the region have the opportunity to disseminate information on the risks of human trafficking. Refugee groups must be empowered to identify the dirty tactics of unscrupulous labor brokers and ill-intended marriage proposals.

The snapshot of slavery for Syrian refugees in Jordan is merely a microcosm of modern slavery in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The region teems with casualties from conflicts past and present, one need only look at the trafficking for torture of Eritreans in Yemen, the flood of Yemini's into Saudi Arabia for forced begging and labor, and the plight of Palestinian's across the region for forced labor. The world can only watch the terrifying journey of Iraqi's fleeing the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the past week and contemplate the modern slavery realities they may be subject to as refugees.