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Human trafficking: the dirty secret behind the United Arab Emirates’ glittering skyscrapers

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The U.A.E. is not just a revolving door for dirty money. It also has significant ties to human trafficking, particularly in the construction industry. 

Only 16 cases of human trafficking, involving 28 victims, were registered last year, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Cooperation, compared to 25 cases involving 34 victims per the prior yearly report by the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking. But even though the numbers appear to be decreasing, human trafficking remains incredibly difficult to quantify. The majority of these cases involve prostitution and abuse of authority against domestic workers. The construction industry, on the other hand, tends to be above suspicion.

Construction: the hidden haven of human trafficking

Several international players in the construction world have sought to shine a light on the subject over the last decade. In 2009, Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity and winner of the 2006 TED prize, addressed the issue of human trafficking in the construction industry in his 2009 TED talk, calling the U.A.E. out specifically. “In the last six months, more than 300 skyscrapers in the U.A.E. have been put on hold or canceled. Behind the headlines that lay behind these buildings is the fate of the often-indentured construction worker. 1.1 million of them,” he explains, before continuing. “Mainly Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Nepalese, these laborers risk everything to make money for their families back home. They pay a middle-man thousands of dollars to be there. And when they arrive, they find themselves in labor camps with no water, no air conditioning, and their passports taken away.”

Rachid*, a Pakistani worker, narrowly escaped. “When I arrived here (in Dubai) in 2015, I found myself at an enormous construction site with deplorable living conditions,” he emphasized, “my passport was essentially stolen from me, and I didn’t know how to leave.” Rasheed paints a devastating picture. “I worked without respite, sometimes without a single break the whole day,” he recounts, looking down, as if ashamed. “I must have lost ten kilos in three weeks, I never had enough to eat. It wasn’t what my family expected of me.” Like other workers in his situation, Rasheed eventually left the country to return to Pakistan, leaving behind his dreams of a decent salary, the hopes of his family back home, and over $2,500 with the malicious smugglers who accompanied him from Dubai only to desert him.

For Khaled, a 29-year-old Indian, the story isn’t over. He is desperate to name the group he worked for, but as he is still in the U.A.E., he restrains himself and conceals their identity. “It was in 2008, I was quite young,” he explains. “I came to the U.A.E. to join a construction project already underway. It was a hellish downward spiral. First, I was told there were hiring fees, I was made to sign a paper I couldn’t read.” He goes on, “I had no translator, and I didn’t find out until a month later that these ‘hiring fees’, equivalent to more than two-and-a-half years’ salary, would be withheld from my pay. So, I had nothing to live off of, and I was condemned to accept the inhuman living conditions.” Khaled bowed to fate and saw the contract out. Two-and-a-half years later, he left the construction site and was hired by another company where he works to this day and is quite happy. “Anyways, after what I went through, I think I could endure anything,” he concludes.

The appearance of heightened regulation since 2013

Despite this, pressure on the U.A.E. is quite recent, only going back to 2013, when it emerged for a very specific reason: the country’s organizing of the 2020 World’s Fair. Under the watchful eye of the international community, no misstep is allowed. But, outside the hubbub of construction for the event, human trafficking continues to abound, and few preventative or repressive measures have been taken. Amnesty International makes note of this in its 2017-2018 report. “[In 2017] migrant workers, who comprised the vast majority of the private workforce, continued to face exploitation and abuse. They remained tied to employers under the kafala sponsorship system and were denied collective bargaining rights,” they write. “Trade unions remained banned and migrant workers who engaged in strike action faced deportation and a one-year ban on returning to the UAE.”

Federal law no. 10 of 2017, limiting working hours and providing for weekly leave and 30 days’ paid annual leave as well as the right to retain personal documents, only came into effect in September of last year. The law also appears to enable employees to end their contract of employment if the employer violates any of its terms, and stipulates that disputes will be adjudicated by specialized tribunals as well as by courts. However, salaried migrant workers remain vulnerable to employers accusing them of overly broad and vague crimes such as “failing to protect their employer’s secrets”, which carry fines of up to Dh100,000 (USD 27,225) or a six-month prison sentence.

Amnesty International continues its warning about the current situation: “In September the UN CERD Committee expressed concern over the lack of monitoring and enforcement of measures to protect migrant workers, and over barriers faced by migrant workers in accessing justice, such as their unwillingness to submit complaints for fear of adverse repercussions.” If authorities do their job in the situation described, then for Cameron Sinclair, the private sector should also come under scrutiny. “While it’s easy to point the finger at local officials and higher authorities … the private sector [is] equally, if not more, accountable,” he maintains.

It would seem that given the absence of implementation of directives, despite official enactment, and the restriction of freedom of speech and association, human trafficking in the U.A.E.’s construction industry will be around for a while yet.

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PayPal agrees to flag suspicious transactions to US anti-trafficking NGO Polaris

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PayPal agrees to flag suspicious transactions

PayPal has agreed to share financial data with US anti-human trafficking organisation Polaris in a new initiative intended to help authorities identify and prosecute perpetrators of the crime.

The online payments giant has said it will flag suspicious transactions that could be linked to trafficking activity to Polaris’ new Financial Intelligence Unit, which will leverage information obtained by the organisation’s National Human Trafficking Hotline to identify traffickers’ cash flows and bring prosecutions for both financial crimes as well as exploitation.

Highlighting how financial institutions have long played a pivotal role in helping law enforcement agencies identify and disrupt human trafficking activity, Polaris said the new initiative will provide investigators with invaluable information that can be used to track new money laundering techniques used by traffickers, and track down perpetrators.

Polaris came up with the concept for the new unit after examining the roles of major private and public-sector systems and industries on the sex and labour trafficking ecosystems.

After reviewing the findings of its On-Ramps, Intersections, and Exit Routes report, the NGO determined that companies in the financial services industry, and firms in the fintech space in particular, were best placed to help those fighting human trafficking identify trafficker cash flows.

In a statement, Aaron Karczmer, Chief Risk Officer at PayPal, commented: “PayPal and Polaris coming together is a great example of private and non-profit entities joining forces to achieve a positive social impact that neither party could fully realize on their own.

“We look forward to advancing new, innovative approaches to combating human trafficking with partners like Polaris, who, like PayPal, strive to create meaningful change on this important issue.”

Applauding the announcement, Luis deBaca, who served as Director of the US Department of Justice’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking, said: “Working with financial institutions to understand how traffickers use their services has the potential to dramatically shift the trafficking equation, making exploitation more risky and therefore less profitable.”

Last June, British bank HSBC launched a new range of banking services designed to help victims of human trafficking get their lives back on track.

A few months later in September, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that dozens of banks had signed up to a similar programme backed by the UN intended to help survivors whose financial identities had been hijacked by traffickers.

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People trafficking gang that smuggled Moroccan migrants into EU via Gibraltar smashed

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smuggled Moroccan migrants into EU via Gibraltar smashed

Police in Spain and Gibraltar have arrested 47 people during a Europol-backed operation targeting a people smuggling network that facilitated the trafficking of Moroccan nations into the EU nations.

More than 200 law enforcement officers took part in the crackdown, which involved house raids across both Spain and Gibraltar that resulted in the seizure of €19 000 ($21,160) in cash, 12 mobile phones, five vehicles and multiple documents.

Members of the gang are said to have been involved in the production of fake documentation that illegal migrants could use to obtain a visa that could allow them to enter Gibraltar.

Once in the British overseas territory, migrants would be smuggled onward into Spain in off-road vehicles with tinted-out windows.

Each migrant would be charged up to €8,000 for a counterfeit visa, in addition to as much as €700 for their onward travel into Spain, which would often be provided by professional drivers.

Having made it into Spain, the migrants would be provided with bus tickets to get them to other EU members states of their choosing.

Migrants would also be charged extra in the event that they required accommodation while they were being trafficked.

In total, it is estimated that the criminal network behind the conspiracy made approximately €1 million before it was broken up.

The operation resulted in the detention of three gang members in Gibraltar following the execution of European Arrest Warrants, and the arrest of a further 44 in 18 Spanish provinces.

All those held were held by police on suspicion of offences relating to their membership of a criminal organisation and migrant smuggling, with two being remanded in custody ahead of a pending criminal trial.

In a statement, Royal Gibraltar Police Commissioner Ian McGrail said: “This investigation is one visible example of the type of work that goes on behind the scenes to protect our borders from threats to national security.

“It also sends a message that Gibraltar will not allow itself to be used by unscrupulous criminals who exploit the human suffering of migrants for economic benefit.

“Organised crime has a huge impact on society at large, we are therefore duty bound to counteract activities which pose a risk to our community with all the policing instruments at our disposal.”

Europol said it supported operation through the provision of intelligence analysis and information exchange, as well as the deployment of a mobile office in Gibraltar and Spain to cross-check operational information against the agency’s databases.

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Dead body of 10-year-old migrant stowaway found in landing gear of Air France flight at Charles De Gaulle airport

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stowaway found in landing gear of Air France flight

The dead body of child thought to have been aged around 10 has been discovered in the undercarriage of a plane at France’s Paris-Charles De Gaulle, according to the AFP news agency and local media.

Air France confirmed on Twitter that the lifeless body of the child was found in a landing gear well on one of its flights that had arrived at the airport from the city of Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire.

The flight on which the corpse was discovered is reported to have left Abidjan on Tuesday evening before arriving in the French capital early on Wednesday morning.

A spokesperson for the airline confirmed that the body of a “stowaway” had been found on the flight without specifying the victim’s age, adding that the discovery was a “human tragedy”.

Sources told AFP the boy, who is reported not to have been dressed in warm clothing, most likely died either from asphyxiation or from the extreme cold.

The stowaway would have had to endure freezing temperatures of around -60C and a lack of oxygen during the flight, making it highly unlikely that he would have stood any chance of surviving the journey.

Speaking with AFP, an Ivorian security source said the incident raises serious questions about security at Abidjan airport, and as to how a boy of 10 could slip past customs officers and end up in the landing gear well of an aircraft.

Several migrants, most often children or young men from Africa, have been found either frozen or crushed to death in the landing gear wells of western-bound flights over recent years.

Last July, it was widely reported that the frozen corpse of a migrant who had hidden in a plane’s landing gear fell just one metre away from a sunbather in south London as the aircraft on which he had stowed away approached Heathrow Airport.

Police in London said the body fell from a Kenya Airways flight that had been travelling to the UK capital from Nairobi.

According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, around a quarter of migrants who stow away in the landing gear wells of planes survive the brutal flight conditions they risk enduring.

Research conducted by the agency revealed that between 1947 and 2012, 96 migrants hid in the undercarriage of planes during flights across the globe, of whom 23 survived to tell the tale.

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