This is the third blog in a series written by LLM students on the Human (In)Security course at Edinburgh Law School. The series celebrates the top five blogs selected in a class competition. This blog is by Isobel Murray John. Isobel is from the Highlands of Scotland and finished her LLB at Edinburgh University before taking a year out and returning to read the LLM in International Law. You can follow her on Twitter @IsobelMurrayJo1.
Choice or coercion? Can ‘ISIS brides’ be victims of human trafficking?
Human trafficking exists in many shades of grey. A standard victim profile simply does not exist. Restricting who we consider as legally legitimate victims may leave those who do not fit the traditional mould, open to further exploitation. An example of when lines seem blurred, often to the detriment of the ‘victim’, is seen in the case of girls who are ‘recruited’ to become brides for ISIS. Often as young as 15 they are lured by promises of a more religiously fulfilled life with a loving husband. Yet they often find themselves forced to live as slaves with little regard for their fundamental human rights. The global narrative surrounding these girls centres around the fact that they made the choice to travel to join ISIS, and therefore how could they possibly be victims of human trafficking. This blog post will examine this flawed narrative and explore how the legal definition of ‘human trafficking’ can actually fit the exploitive circumstances these girls find themselves in. There should be more acknowledgment and empathy from society rather than disgust and ostracism.
Current international law on human trafficking
To understand whether ‘ISIS brides’ could be considered as victims of human trafficking it is necessary examine if the current international law can be applied. Most importantly, the United Nations’ Protocol to Prevent, Supress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (Palermo Protocol) states that trafficking is the:
Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.
Exploiting people deceived into that position is the key element of trafficking. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ standard definition of exploitation. The Palermo Protocol notes that exploitation can include; sexual exploitation, slavery and forced labour or services. So can these young girls who find themselves lured in by ISIS recruiters be considered as having been deceived and exploited? They are certainly deceived by tales of the ‘joys of sisterhood’ and the promise of love and religious fulfilment. The groups aggressively groom and manipulate these girls, often over social media, showering them with praise and flattery. Once they arrive they almost instantaneously become the man’s property, and find themselves forced into virtual slavery.
Are ISIS brides exploited?
Montgomery notes that these women find that their role is, “is circumscribed for childbearing, marriage, cooking and cleaning, and they may not even be able to leave the house.” One told of being ‘gifted’ to her husband’s friends and raped until she would
pass out. Another was trafficked at 14, married against her will, pregnant by 15, then again at 16. The realities of stoning’s, beatings and sexual slavery, not to mention the torment of being constantly pregnant is not something you would wish on your worst enemy let alone a child. Yet the fact that many of these girls are under the age of 18 when they first become exposed to this deception and coercion, thus legally considered to be children according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, seems to be forgotten. The UK Government Home Office guidance on human trafficking acknowledges that young people and children, due to their dependent status, will be far more susceptible to psychological coercion. It even states that individuals may appear as “willing participants”.
Unrepentant or brainwashed?
These girls face huge stigma and backlash based on their ‘choice’ to leave their own countries and join these groups. They are believed to have made these judgements clearly and in sound mind, and therefore the punishment should be representative of this. Yet how much of a choice is it? Domestic judicial systems must recognise the likelihood that these girls have been trafficked. Understandably, each case should be judged on individual circumstances as the complexity of motivations and roles of these woman is diverse. Often however, the hallmarks of the Palermo Protocol’s definition of trafficking are present. These girls are groomed and deceived into making the decision to travel to join ISIS. Once there, they move around with the group, are sexually exploited and treated in a manner which totally denies their dignity and fundamental human rights.
Famously, Shamima Begum has been described as “unrepentant and without regret” when asked about her decision to leave the UK and marry a Dutch ISIS fighter. Consequently, she, along with many other British women, has been stripped of her citizenship on the basis of ‘security fears’. Hannah Arendt poignantly describes citizenship as the “right to have rights”. Such an extreme response- to strip these women of their citizenship- should only be justified by unmitigated wrongs and must fully recognise the individual circumstances. The phrase ‘recruit’ is often used when describing these women, which only encourages a global narrative that such women are not victims but equitable with male fighters. The women will sometimes fight too, but the fundamental issue is that women are not lured to ISIS for to their fighting ability. It is the male sexual appetite and the securing of a future ISIS generation which prompts the demand for women. They are deceived and exploited purely for their bodies.
How to move forward?
Further guidance should be provided on the application of the Palermo Protocol for cases which are not clear-cut, particularly regarding potential victims of trafficking by terrorists. Additionally, domestic legal systems should examine their implementation and interpretation of the protocol in such cases. The assumption in general discourse around trafficking is that it happens from a ‘poorer’ country to either another similar country or a ‘wealthier’ country. It is seen as inconceivable that victims may be transported from the West to less affluent and war-torn countries such as Syria. There is no standard victim of human trafficking. ‘Willing participation’ does not justify ignorance of circumstances that may well fit the legal definition of trafficking. While it should be reinforced that this may not mitigate potential crimes these young women may have committed, it must be taken into account. Very often they are deceived, coerced and brainwashed before being exploited for their bodies. This cannot be ignored.
 UN General Assembly, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 15 November 2000, Article 3(a).
 Gladstone, R, “Twitter Says It Suspended 10,000 ISIS-Linked Accounts in One Day.” New York Times. 9 April 2015
 Katarina Montgomery, ‘ISIS Recruits Brides to Solve Middle East ‘Marriage Crisis’, Syria Deeply, (2015).
 UN Commission on Human Rights, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 7 March 1990, E/CN.4/RES/1990/74, Article 1.
 UK Home Office, ‘Modern Slavery: Statutory Guidance for England and Wales (under s49 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015) and Non-Statutory Guidance for Scotland and Northern Ireland, January 2021, at Section 2.18.
 Cook, J & Vale G, ‘From Daesh to Diaspora: Tracing the woman and minors of Islamic State.’ ICSR Report, Kings College London (2018), at p.26.
 Binetti, A, ‘A new frontier: human trafficking and ISIS’s recruitment of woman from the west’, Information2Action, Georgetown Institute for Woman, Peace & Security, (2015) at pp.2-3.