Gulf states are failing to meet international minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking, particularly forced labour, according to the US Department of State’s annual review.
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are still among the worst countries and are not making any significant efforts to improve, the Trafficking in Persons Report 2013 says.
The UAE, Qatar and Oman also do not fully comply with the minimum standards for combating human trafficking, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance.
While Bahrain has some measures in place, it has not stepped up its efforts in recent years and the number of people forced into labour in the country remains significantly high, according to the report.
The Gulf states were identified as being key markets for men and women who voluntarily travel from Asian and African countries such as Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Vietnam, Burma, as domestic workers or low-skilled labourers.
However, once in the Gulf they subsequently face conditions indicative of forced labour, including non-payment of wages, long working hours without rest, deprivation of food, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement such as the withholding of passports or confinement to the workplace.
In some cases, migrants are held in the country because their employer will not give them permission to leave and they are especially vulnerable to debt bondage, the report says.
Forced prostitution also was a problem to a lesser degree, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
“Women, primarily from Asia and Africa, are believed to be forced into prostitution in Saudi. Some female domestic workers are reportedly kidnapped and forced into prostitution after running away from abusive employers,” the report says.
“Some Saudi nationals travel to destinations including Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh to solicit prostitution from women and underage girls. Some Saudi men used legally-contracted “temporary marriages” in countries such as Egypt, India, Mauritania, Yemen, and Indonesia as a means by which to sexually.”
Children from Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chad, and Sudan also are subjected to forced labour as beggars and street vendors in Saudi Arabia, facilitated by criminal gangs. A Saudi government study conducted in 2011 reported that most beggars in Saudi Arabia are Yemenis between the ages of 16 and 25, the report says.
Explaining its decision to include Kuwait in the worst category, the US State Department said although the government enacted an anti-trafficking law in March 2013, it had not demonstrated significant efforts to prosecute and convict trafficking offenders.
There also was no lead national anti-trafficking coordinating body, the government did not systematically monitor its anti-trafficking efforts and victim protection measures remained weak.
Kuwait has this year embarked on a major crackdown on illegal workers, deported several thousand for traffic offences some have argued is a violation of human rights and declared its intention to reduce expat numbers by 100,000 each of the next 10 years.
“The government similarly continued to make insufficient efforts to prevent trafficking during the reporting period,” the report says. “For these reasons, Kuwait is placed on Tier 3 for a seventh consecutive year.”
The report praised the UAE government for continuing to make anti-trafficking prevention efforts a priority, with anti-trafficking information and education campaigns within the UAE and the embassies and consulates of labour source countries, as well as expanding an awareness-raising advertisement campaign in international airports and the media.
The Ministry of Labour forwarded 405 companies accused of violating the labour law for public prosecution in the past year. In September 2012, a businessman was sentenced to pay almost $1m in fines for paying his workers’ salaries nine months late.
Oman was making some efforts. Over the last year, the government had successfully convicted sex but it did not investigate or prosecute any suspected labour trafficking offenders, the report says.
Government-run shelters for trafficking victims remained underused and only two victims were referred to the shelter, a significant decrease from the previous year.
“Omani authorities continued to lack formal procedures to proactively identify trafficking victims among those detained for immigration violations or prostitution charges,” the report says. “As a result, the government may not have adequately identified victims of forced labour or sex trafficking nor punished the trafficking offenders.”
Qatar also did not fully comply with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking but the government continued to demonstrate efforts to do so, particularly through prosecuting trafficking offenders, proactively identifying trafficking victims and implementing awareness campaigns.
Officials were trained on victim identification procedures, however, some continued to punish victims for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking and only assisted victims who lodged official complaints prior to being arrested by authorities.
“... the government did not demonstrate efforts to abolish the sponsorship system, nor did it strictly enforce a legal provision that criminalizes withholding of passports,” the report says.
Bahrain was placed in the Tier 2 Watch List category for a second consecutive year, meaning it had failed to improve its efforts to combat trafficking.
“The government [of Bahrain] made limited efforts to prosecute and punish perpetrators of forced labour and sex trafficking during the reporting period,” the report says.
“Despite past commitments, the government’s migrant worker sponsorship—or “kafala”—system was not abolished and continued to give employers inordinate power over foreign workers and contributed to forced labour and debt bondage.”