Kidnapping mafias in Syria | Security chaos helps gangs to “flourish”… recruitment of children and organ trade are major motives behind kidnapping increase
As deteriorating security hits most of the Syrian provinces, frequent kidnappings pose a threat to the Syrian people, especially with increasing incidents of children kidnappings in several areas such as Daraa, Damascus, Rif Dimashq, Idlib, Al-Suwaidaa and Aleppo. This increase is attributed to several factors, including the civil war and security vacuum.
With the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, many bands, factions and militias started to come out, each with conflicting affiliations and interests, which helped the kidnapping mafias to boom throughout Syria. The civil war provided a suitable environment for the “prosperity” of these gangs and mafias which have made a career of kidnapping people, especially children, making no distinction between males and females.
Some regime-backed militias and the Shapiha (regime loyalists who abuse power and conduct illegal actions for the benefit of the regime), in addition to other Turkish-backed factions have been found to be implicated in kidnapping incidents. Ironically, regime security services themselves struck reconciliation deals with an infamous gang in Areqah town in the western countryside of Al-Suwaidaa, south of Syria. Through such deals, the Syrian regime has ignored and turned a blind eye to tens of the gang’s crimes, including kidnappings, humiliation, rapes, murders and thefts.
Another major factor of the increase of kidnappings is manifested in the displacement operations, since Syrians flee from areas with escalating violence, rivalries or military operations to safer places, which led to the displacement of half of Syria’s population inside and outside Syria. These displacement operations escalated greatly with the attempts to clear out ISIS strongholds, in addition to the forced displacement of civilians with the purpose of demographic change as it is the case in areas under the control of Turkish forces and their proxy factions.
Moreover, areas under the control of Iranian forces and militias suffer from increasing kidnapping incidents because of the prevalence of gangs which kidnap displaced children, exploiting the displaced people’s insufficient experience of the new areas they have moved to and the residents there.
One more prominent factor to be added is the fact that a considerable number of children are stateless and have no ID documents, especially children who were born in refugee camps or in areas under the control of jihadi organizations.
With approximately 5 million Syrian children being displaced inside and outside Syria, many children lost identification documents and became with no nationality, especially since legal services and birth registration departments have been closed in the most contested areas.
Such dire conditions make kidnappings easier in areas where children with no ID documents live. One example, among many, is “Al-Hawl Camp” which is infamous for its high ratio of missing children.
The widespread recruitment of children as mercenaries was also one of the factors that contributed to the spread of kidnapping, which has paved the way for kidnapping gangs to exploit kidnapped children and hand them over to the dominant forces in different areas of control in order to be recruited into the ranks of these forces.
For example, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has monitored Turkey’s recruitment of Syrian children under the age of eighteen. They go from Idlib and north Aleppo countryside to Afrin, pretending to search for work. Turkish-backed factions in Afrin recruit these children and send them to fight in Libya in mercenary groups, providing them with fake identities and incorrect information about their date and place of birth.
According to Observatory sources, some 200 children were sent to Libya, 18 of whom were killed in military operations.
In addition to these factors, the substantial ransom demands make such business very attractive and lucrative for operating gangs, as demanding large sums of money from children’s relatives in return for their release . On May 9, 2020, reliable sources informed the Syrian Observatory that the Turkish-backed police arrested a gang of three persons, including a woman, responsible for kidnapping. The police rescued a child who was kidnapped earlier by the same gang in Mare’ city. The gang kidnapped him to blackmail the child’s family and get ransom for his release.
Another factor that has contributed to the widespread phenomenon of kidnapping is organ trade. Kidnapping gangs profit from the children by selling them to organ trafficking networks, which steal their organs and then dump their bodies.
On July 26, 2020, SOHR activists reported that a child was found dead in a house near “Al-Ferdaws” neighbourhood in the SDF-controlled city of Al-Raqqah. While uncertainty has surrounded the circumstances of the killing of the child.
Reliable SOHR sources in Damascus have confirmed that the incidents of kidnapping children by unknown individuals have become an increasingly pressing concern for civilians in Syria’s capital, Damascus.
Child kidnapping escalated in the last week of June 2020. Concern grows over the possibility that “organ trade” is the reason behind these kidnappings, as there was no contact between the kidnappers and relatives of the kidnapped children.
SOHR activists have reported that kidnappings took place in “Al-Thalath Anzat” park and “Al-Thurayya” park in Al-Maydan neighbourhood, the main park and Al-Ansari mosque park in Al-Zahira neighbourhood, Nirmin park in Al-Muhajireen neighbourhood, and “Tanzim Kafr Susah” park.
Among other reasons, increasing human trafficking, sexual exploitation and begging. Child kidnapping is on the rise as the rate of child exploitation increases in illegal labour, hard labour, violence, crime and begging, as well as sexual abuse and rape.
On July 14, 2020, SOHR activists reported that a 15-year-old girl was kidnapped from the town of Saqba in eastern Ghouta in Damascus countryside. The child’s fate remains unknown.
The failure to address kidnapping gangs and their business, particularly child kidnapping in different areas of control in Syrian territory, generates a number of negative phenomena which threatens entire generations of Syrians.
Therefore, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights renews its calls to the international community, the United Nations and the Security Council to intervene to protect the rights of Syrian children, return them to their families and protect them from the ravages of civil wars in their own country.