Human trafficking in the Middle East
A study prepared by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which was revealed on Tuesday, showed that the highest rates of human trafficking were registered in the Middle East.
The study, which was named “Tricked and Trapped: Human Trafficking in the Middle East”, was presented by the ILO on Tuesday in Amman at the first-ever tripartite regional conference on human trafficking. The report indicated that some 600,000 migrant workers are subject to forced labour and exploitation.
The study examined the status of migrant workers in four Arab states: Jordan, the UAE, Kuwait and Lebanon.
The findings of the ILO were compiled through 650 one-on-one interviews with migrant workers in the countries, and the results will be discussed during a two-day workshop.
ILO representatives said that the study offers a rare glimpse into the hardships endured by workers, who come from some of the world’s poorest countries, and that it additionally examines the structural barriers in place in the Middle East that affect their quality of life and work.
The meeting, which is involving over 100 representatives from a total of 12 Arab countries, is expected to “meaningfully progress discussions on how to implement international anti-trafficking laws into practice in the Middle East”, a region that has one of the highest concentration of migrant workers in the world, the authors said.
“The region’s labour migration is unique due to its scale and the exponential growth it has witnessed in recent years,” Beate Andrees, head of the ILO’s special action programme to combat forced labour, said. “The challenge is how to properly put in place safeguards, in both origin and destination countries, that prevent the exploitation and abuse of these workers.”
The study outcomes, which were compiled over two years, shed light on the situation of trafficked adult workers in the Middle East, the processes through which they become involved in forced labour and sexual exploitation and the constraints that prevent them from leaving the abuse.
The ILO’s report additionally examines the responses to human trafficking that governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations and other stakeholders have recently put in place. It also provides regional policy makers with recommendations to help them effectively counter the problem.
The study said that the Middle East hosts millions of migrant workers, whose numbers, in some cases, exceed the number of national workers substantially. The report cited Qatar, where 94 per cent of workers are migrants and Saudi Arabia, where the figure exceeds 50 per cent.
In Jordan and Lebanon migrant workers make up a significant part of the workforce, particularly in the construction and domestic work sectors, the study said.
“Human trafficking can only be effectively tackled by addressing the systemic gaps in labour migration governance across the region,” Frank Hagemann, ILO deputy regional director for the Arab states, was quoted as saying in the report.
The Kafala (sponsorship) system, which governs the lives of most migrant workers in the Levant and GCC countries, was referred to as “inherently problematic” by the report, stating that it creates an unequal power dynamic between the employer and the worker. This highlights the deficits in the jurisdiction of the labour law that reinforces the underlying vulnerabilities of migrant workers as well as the significant loopholes in national legislation that do not allow migrant workers the opportunity to terminate unjust employment contracts and change employers.
The report added that the lack of an inspection mechanism maintains the isolation of domestic workers in private businesses and heightens their vulnerability to mistreatment, and that the real risks of exploitation are found for workers who are coerced into sexual activity in the entertainment industry.
In male-dominated sectors such as construction, manufacturing, seafaring and agriculture, workers are routinely deceived regarding their living and working conditions, their job requirements and the existence of employment opportunities, the report noted.
However, the ILO report recognises that governments, social partners and civil society actors have stepped up efforts to combat forced labour and human trafficking in recent years, particularly on the legislative, policy and service delivery fronts.
“But shortcomings persist in applying laws and prosecuting and convicting the perpetrators of human trafficking. The absence of the right to freedom of association in many Arab countries remains a major obstacle to the workers’ ability to make their voices heard,” said the report.
The report proposed empowering labour ministries to oversee the recruitment process, handle complaints by migrants and employers, and to verify allegations of mistreatment and respond accordingly as a viable alternative to the Kafala system currently in place.
It also highlighted the need to extend legal coverage and equal rights to all categories of workers, revise standard employment contracts, end wage discrimination, improve recruitment systems, strengthen legislative frameworks and enhance labour inspection.
“Government authorities have an important role to play in affording victims of trafficking access to justice and compensation, as do trade unions in advocating for workers’ rights, and employer’s organisations in helping ensure that recruitment practices are free from debt bondage, excessive recruitment fees and other forms of deception and coercion,” said the report.
Jordan’s anti-human trafficking efforts
• In 2008, the Anti-Human Trafficking Law was issued and placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice.
• In 2011, the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit was established under the same law, as a joint effort of the Justice Ministry and the Public Security Department.
• The unit, which is funded from the Labour Ministry budget, is staffed by specialised police officers and civilian inspectors.
• It embarked on mission on November 1, 2012.
• The unit, which is working to build a shelter for victims of human trafficking, has been training employers and civil society activists.
• So far, the unit has received 25 complaints. Some of which were referred to courts.