The Middle East, Modern Slavery Hub
Back in the awful days of slavery, some Arab merchants took an important part in the slave trade between Africa, Europe and the New World.
Centuries have passed, humanity has evolved (or in any case, is supposed to have evolved), and slavery now is of course considered eradicated, and what’s more, has been established as a crime against humanity as stated in many international law texts, including the Rome Status (creating the International Criminal Court).
Banished, the abominable crime of slavery? If we’re talking about an all out-in-the-open, institutionalised structure like it used to be, then yes, we could say that slave trade doesn’t exist anymore. But what about the thousands of people who transit or end up in our region, people who get trapped by smugglers who lie to them, who get their passports stolen, who are forced to work and live in unspeakable conditions? These people can’t even speak up or complain about their situation, for fear of being sent back to their countries where they could sometimes face death, for fear for their lives or their families’ if they are being threatened by the mafia who holds the trafficking reins, or simply because they know that the authorities of the country they’re living in won’t acknowledge their issues and might imprison or abuse them.
The euphemism used nowadays to describe this phenomenon is “Human Trafficking”. According to the United Nations, Human Trafficking is:
“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation”.
So for example, luring a young woman into leaving her country while promising her a good position as a maid in Lebanon, and taking her passports away from her, forcing her into accepting a position, locking her into her room when she’s not working, in a word exploit her and threaten her, is considered human trafficking.
What’s the situation of Trafficking in Persons (TIP) in the Middle East?
First of all, it is important to understand that the victims of Human Trafficking often come from a very poor background, and have to face war and/or economic hardship in their own country. They often get in touch with smugglers, or these organised criminal networks get in touch with them, because of their accrued vulnerability and the hope they have of finding a better situation in another country.
Depending on the receiving country, victims of Human Trafficking can experience all kinds of fate: from the sex slaves of Egypt and Lebanon, to the abused domestic workers of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf region, to the devastating effects of the “Sponsorship” measures in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East is increasingly becoming a hub for human trafficking.
The aforementioned sponsorship law exists in the whole Gulf region but is particularly harsh in Saudi Arabia and consists in tying a migrant worker to a single employer, who has to approve the exit permit of his domestic worker/ construction builder/ agriculture labourer, which gives the employer a tremendous power over his employee, aggravating his or her vulnerability to human trafficking, and letting the door open to all kinds of abuse. Imagine being imprisoned in a country, taking hostage by your job. That’s these victim’s reality. Moreover, this practice being enshrined in a law, the victim can’t resort to internal legal action.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are just ones of many examples of the alarming situation of Human Trafficking in the region. The ILO video Maid in Lebanon that was profusely circulated around Facebook and other networking sites constitutes an excellent example of what is going on in Lebanon behind closed doors. The beginning of the video is particularly moving: Sri Lankan women about to leave their country are asked to point Lebanon on a map, and they can’t even do it. I shudder to imagine what it must be like to leave your own country and literally throw yourself in the unknown. The stories of these women are appalling: they leave their families back home in the hope of guaranteeing them a better future and what do they find in the Paris of the Middle East? Employers that lock them up, shout at them for no reason, bureaucracy that ask them for huge amounts of money to give them back their passports, if they ever do it. These two examples are just drops in the sea of abuse trafficked people endure: beatings, harassment, rapes, ill-treatment, starvation, are their daily fate on a day to day basis throughout the Middle East.
And so to the Culprits: Who is to Blame? Oh well, just about everyone. The smugglers of course, who are true criminal organized mafia, but also the whole bureaucracy around migrants workers, who work hand in hand with the said mafias, earning money on the back of other human beings. Governments who do not try and tackle these issues hardly enough are also to be pointed at. But apart from the usual suspects that are public officials and criminals, families and companies that enjoy the fruits of slavery should be in my opinion the firsts to take the blame. After all, criminals are criminals, they never said they were applying for sainthood, and Middle Eastern governments are busy tracking down what bloggers are writing about them and putting them into jail, or are busy bickering and therefore do not have enough times on their hands to respond appropriately to this issue. But what is to be said of the Saudi businessman who claims to be a righteous religious man who would not want his wife to drive but exploits his workers, or of the wealthy chic Lebanese woman driving her four by four in Achrafieh, the image of respectability, who locks her maid up in her room because “you know hayete, you never know with these people (pulls a disgusted face), she might run away with a man like her, they are animals these people you can’t trust them”, or something along these lines. And what is to be said about all of us who do not say anything when we see the abuse taking place in front of us.
We are all concerned by this issue. Pardon me for paraphrasing Emile Durkheim, but our world is increasingly becoming a global village, and when one of us is aching, we all should be if we want to social fabric to be sustainable.
Luckily, some governments have already understood this and are taking actions in order to modify their laws. For example, the Gulf state of Oman has declared its firm will to put in place a specific law against Human Trafficking, as such a law was lacking in its legal regime. Besides, during a UNESCO and UNICEF led conference, Qatar proposed that Arab countries introduce material on the fight against human trafficking into their school curriculums in order to raise awareness of the scourge. Dubai, Israel, Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are also taking special measures to tackle the issue.
A holistic approach should be undertaken at all levels of the problem to counter it. An integrated programme could be put in place by a UN agency, comprising of a development phase in the main countries where modern slaves come from in order to reduce their economic vulnerability to trafficking, a cooperation part between states to neutralise the criminal networks of smugglers could also be part of the project. Finally, the programme should organise advocacy campaigns in the receiving countries to raise awareness among the populations about the plight of human trafficking. And last but not least, the international community as a whole should dare to touch the subject of economic workers in a meaningful way as the International Organisation for Migration’s mandate seems too vague.