The UN has declared July 30 as the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, inviting people everywhere to show solidarity with trafficking victims on social media with the hashtag #igivehope. Learn more about the campaign here.
What is human trafficking? Though we often associate trafficking with kidnapping or forced prostitution taking place only in underground markets, the reality is that trafficking involves a spectrum of coerced behavior and is much more commonplace.
"[T]he recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat, use of force or other means of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the receiving or giving of payment… to a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation."
The common denominator in all trafficking scenarios is the use of force, fraud or coercion to exploit a person for commercial sex or for the purpose of subjecting a victim to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or forced labor. The use of force or coercion can be direct and violent, or psychological.
Thus, trafficking is not merely the transport of persons against their will - and in fact many voluntary migrants can easily find themselves the victims of trafficking during recruitment, transit, or arrival. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has argued that migrants are vulnerable to trafficking throughout the migration cycle, and that trafficking must consequently be approached within the context of migration 'management.'
In the wider MENA region, forced labour generates $8.5 billion USD annually, about $15,000 per victim. Traffickers of domestic workers in the GCC make around $1,000 per maid and trafficking victims in the region pay $500 million in recruitment fees each year. Last year, the IOM produced a report entitled “Tricked and Trapped: Human Trafficking in the Middle East,” distilling the legal and normative frameworks that induce or promote trafficking and forced labour in the region. GCC states lashed out against the report, claiming that it sourced anecdotes rather than data evidencing systematic abuses. The UAE was especially vehement in denying that structural factors, including those within the Kafala system, result in forced labor conditions.
Gulf states are reluctant to recognize the full extent of forced labour in human trafficking; in June 2014, Gulf states abstained from voting on the forced labour protocol, which address contemporary forms of forced labour, including unscrupulous recruitment practices and labour trafficking. Across the GCC, departments, government organizations, or other projects established to combat trafficking have dealt primarily with women trafficked in for sex - consequently reporting a very small numbers of trafficking cases each year. Some recent state activities suggest attitudes may be changing, however slowly; both Qatar and the UAE launched media campaigns to raise awareness about trafficking though neither have implemented significant reforms to combat the root causes of labour trafficking. Similarly, Kuwait recently announced the results of national efforts to combat trafficking; since 2008, over 4,075 fake companies (companies that exist on paper only, profiting from the sponsorship system by selling visas and recruiting migrant workers for undocumented jobs or for no job at all) were referred to pubic prosecution. Still, according to Kuwaiti officials, half of these companies will only face a misdemeanor; meanwhile, of 12,000 migrants employed by these companies, less than half were able to correct their status and remain in Kuwait, while 3,300 were deported. The absence of proportionate penalties for visa traffickers and the overarching failure to recognize visa trafficking as a byproduct of the sponsorship system demonstrates that serious progress remains to be made in combatting trafficking and forced labour.
Thus while some GCC states have initiated greater commitments to end trafficking, none acknowledge the complicity of local laws or other deficiencies in their migration 'management' systems that perpetuate, induce, or fail to penalize labor trafficking. These include restrictions on employment mobility and other idiosyncrasies of the Kafala system that bond migrants to their employers in severely disproportional relationships.