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Sex trafficking in UAE and Oman under spotlight

On June 13, 2023

A recent Reuters report draws attention to human trafficking for sex work in the UAE, and the impossible challenges faced by victims to seek justice. The report, How torture, deception and inaction underpin UAE's thriving sex trafficking industry, narrates the case against Christy Gold (real name Christiana Jacob Uadiale) who is facing charges in Nigeria for human trafficking and forcing women into prostitution in Dubai. About 25 women trafficked by Gold, who has fled to the UAE, recount the horrors they were subject to by the trafficker and her brother, from starvation and flogging to extreme physical and sexual abuse.

“Three of the women said in interviews that Gold told them that if they didn’t do as they were told, they’d be killed and dumped in the desert. Those who didn’t make enough money for her were taken to a room in an apartment in Dubai, where Gold’s brother starved them, flogged them and shoved hot chili paste into their vaginas, according to three anti-trafficking officials and five women who provided detailed accounts in interviews and court statements.”

The findings of the investigation are critical as sex trafficking is widespread but underreported, owing to the difficulties victims face in accessing complaints mechanisms, the lack of government transparency, and the restraints journalists face in covering sensitive issues in the region.

Trafficking for both forced labour and sex is more than a frequent occurrence in the region overall, but particularly in the UAE and Oman where visit visas are fairly easy to obtain, and the borders between the two states are porous.

In November last year, the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigations Department alleged that 45 women who travelled to work as domestic workers in Oman were auctioned off into prostitution.  Some of the women were reportedly taken to Abu Dhabi on a visit visa and then trafficked into Oman.

"When the women are taken to Oman they are handed over to another group and are sold to Arabs. Young women who are pretty are taken away first. They are sold for between 1 Million and 2.5 Million in Oman currency. The younger the person, the higher the price. The women are auctioned. This racket is supported by some officials who direct these women to a specific counter at the airport," said the Senior Police Officer.

In other cases that Migrant-Rights.Org has documented, Ugandan women were trafficked to brothels in Dubai and struggled to receive assistance when complaints were lodged directly by them or on their behalf. In 2021, one Ugandan woman was taken to the UAE with a promise to work as a singer. But she was trafficked into prostitution. The victim shared the location of the brothel she was being held in against her will and repeated attempts were made to file a complaint on her behalf, with the police taking no action. She was later rescued and repatriated by an NGO working informally on the ground.

As in the case of the Nigeria-UAE trafficking ring, only the countries of origin seem to have taken action both to rescue the women and to penalize the traffickers. Sri Lanka arrested three agents and a senior diplomat working at the embassy. A special communique issued jointly by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons in February this year urged Sri Lanka to take action to prevent trafficking and addressed in specific the plight of 90 women in various shelters in Oman, many of whom are victims of sexual exploitation. Sri Lanka has not responded to the communication.

Except for seeking clarification on “methods of international cooperation with the country of destination (Oman)”, the communication makes no other call for accountability of the destination state.

Accountability at destination

Accordingly, responses in destination states have been defensive or ineffective. The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the allegations that UAE tolerates human trafficking are baseless and without foundation. The Dubai government’s media affairs office, responding to Reuters, maintained that claims that Gold had engaged in the sex trafficking of African women in Dubai are “false and have absolutely no basis in fact” and that Gold had “entered and exited Dubai legally and was not implicated in any illegal activities.”

The Head of the Human Trafficking Department at the Directorate General of Inquiries and Criminal Investigations of the Royal Oman Police (ROP) merely stated that the country was “committed to combating the phenomenon of human trafficking and all practices associated with it, which are not compatible with lofty human principles and values, as they constitute an insult to legitimate human rights and dignity.” In 2022, of the 266 cases of trafficking filed, there were 7 convictions, but no details of those cases are publicly available.

Both the UAE and Oman are ranked Tier 2 in the 2022 US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP). On the UAE, the report states:

“…the government did not consistently screen vulnerable populations for trafficking indicators, which may have penalized some victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit, such as immigration or “prostitution” violations, and the deportation of other unidentified victims. This contributed to the lowest number of victims the government identified in five years.”

The report also stated that the UAE historically focussed efforts overwhelmingly on sex trafficking and not labour trafficking, though for the first time since 2019, it has convicted more traffickers for forced labour.

“During the reporting year, the government prosecuted 40 alleged traffickers in 19 cases, including 34 individuals in 15 sex trafficking cases, two individuals in two forced begging cases, and three individuals in one case for “selling” victims across the seven emirates. This was a decrease compared with the prosecution of 57 alleged traffickers in 20 cases during the previous year: 54 individuals in 19 sex trafficking cases and three individuals in one child forced begging case. For the first time since 2018, the government reported prosecuting one individual for forced labor during the year. Of the prosecutions, 14 alleged perpetrators in five sex trafficking cases and one alleged perpetrator in one forced labor case remained pending verdicts at the close of the reporting period. Courts convicted 23 traffickers, including 18 sex traffickers, two individuals for forced begging, and three individuals for “selling victims,” and sentenced them to between six months and life imprisonment, with the majority of perpetrators receiving three years or more with additional fines. While the government did not report the nationalities of traffickers, the vast majority were foreign nationals subject to deportation at the conclusion of their sentences.

On Oman, the TIP report states that the government did not have formal referral procedures and that it made uneven efforts to protect victims and that it identified fewer victims overall compared to previous years. The number of prosecutions, however, did increase significantly from the year prior.

“In 2021, the government investigated 55 alleged human trafficking cases, including 47 cases of sex trafficking and eight cases of forced begging, resulting in the arrest of 97 suspects. This was a large increase compared with the previous reporting period when the government investigated seven alleged sex trafficking cases. Authorities prosecuted 28 alleged suspects under the anti-trafficking law for sex trafficking and eight alleged suspects under the penal code for forced begging; the government has not reported any forced labor of migrant workers, including domestic servitude, prosecutions in the last three years. This was a large increase compared with the government’s prosecution of two suspects for sex trafficking in 2020.”