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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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Major ‘lover boy’ prostitution gang broken up by coalition of European law enforcement agencies

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A Romanian human trafficking and prostitution network that used the “lover boy” method to entrap young women before forcing them into sex work has been broken up a coalition of European law enforcement agencies.

The lover boy method, also known as the “Romeo pimp” method, involves young men seducing victims with the objective of coercing them into prostitution.

Lover boy traffickers groom their victims to believe they have entered into a serious romantic relationship before using emotional, psychological and sometimes physical abuse to intimidate them into working in the sex services industry.

Investigators from Spain, Romania, the Czech Republic and several other European nations were involved in the operation that resulted in the dismantling of the gang, which is said to have groomed and exploited at least 10 young women by forcing them to work as prostitutes.

The operation resulted in the arrest of 14 people in Romania and Spain, the safeguarding of 10 trafficking victims, and the confiscation of a number of items, including a quantity of cash, jewellery, expensive vehicles and several electronic devices.

In total, the agencies taking part in the effort raided 16 properties in the Czech Republic, Romania and Spain.

Having groomed their victims, Romanian members of the network would develop manipulative dependent relationships with the young women they targeted before forcing them into sex work.

Once under the traffickers’ control, victims would be abused and drugged before being sold onto other members of the network for as much as €6,000 ($6,632) each.

The women would then be moved between locations and countries on a regular basis as part of the gang’s efforts to avoid the attention of police.

Profits made by the network were laundered through the purchase of property, expensive jewellery and high-value cars.

Ongoing investigations into the network’s activities are focussed on the theory that it was working in cooperation with another gang.

Enquires have already resulted in the identification of more than 40 additional women who fell victim to the two criminal organisations.

In a statement, Europol said: “Europol facilitated the information exchange between the participating countries, provided coordination support and analysed operational information against Europol’s databases to give leads to investigators.

“Europol conducted a financial analysis based on the information provided which highlighted the extension of the criminal activity of the group and the presence and flow of illicit profits to other jurisdictions.”

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US politicians call for state action against Pornhub over allegations it hosted rape and child abuse videos

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Pornhub and its Canadian owner MindGeek should face a US federal investigation over allegations they hosted videos depicting the rape and sexual exploitation of trafficked women and children, Republican Senator Ben Sasse has said.

In a letter sent to the US Department of Justice on Monday, Sasse noted several cases in which the website, which clocked up 42 billion visits last year, had made content available in which vulnerable trafficking victims could be seen being abused.

Sasse quoted one example in which the mother of a missing 15-year-old girl discovered that videos featuring the rape and sexual assault of her daughter had been uploaded to the website.

Christopher Johnson, the victim’s trafficker, filmed himself raping the teenager before adding the resultant footage to Pornhub.

After forcing the girl to have an abortion, Johnson was arrested in Florida when police matched his appearance in some of the videos and linked it with CCTV footage.

Sasse also highlighted the case of the owners of porn sites GirlsDoPorn and GirlsDoToys, who were charged with sex trafficking offences after they conned young woman into appearing in adult films on false pretenses before uploading the footage to Pornhub without the victims’ permission.

“[T]he problem of Pornhub streaming content featuring women and children victims of sex trafficking reached the point in November that PayPal cut off services for Pornhub, refusing to facilitate this abuse any longer,” Sasse wrote.

“Pornhub must not escape scrutiny. I therefore request that the Department open an investigation into Pornhub and its parent entity MindGeek Holding SARL for their involvement in this disturbing pipeline of exploiting children and other victims and survivors of sex trafficking.”

Speaking separately with Fox News on Tuesday, Democrat politician Jackie Speier said that while a federal investigation into Pornhub would be a good first step, Congress should pass her Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution (SHIELD) Act, which would impose “criminal penalties for posting nonconsensual pornography on sites like Pornhub”.

“I’ve spoken with many survivors who have been driven from careers, fields of study, and lost family and loved ones due to this insidious practice. In the worst cases, people have been driven to suicide,” Speier said.

Last month, US women’s rights group Exodus Cry posted a petition on Change.org calling for Pornhub to be closed down after it hosted videos featuring sex trafficking victims and child sexual exploitation.

The petition has so far attracted almost 440,000 signatures.

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Police nab six members of gang that charged Vietnamese migrants as much as €20,000 to be trafficked to Germany

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Police in Germany have arrested six suspects during a Europol-backed investigation into an organised immigration crime network that is said to have charged Vietnamese nationals as much as €20,000 ($22,126) each to be smuggled into Europe.

The operation, which involved a total of 700 law enforcement officers, saw raids on 20 residential apartments and business premises across Berlin’s eastern Kreuzberg district, including nail bars and restaurants.

After issuing 13 arrest warrants for members of the gang, officers detained six alleged members of the network, and took into temporary custody an additional 30 individuals, who were presumed to have been trafficked Vietnamese nationals.

Members of the network are thought to have facilitated the trafficking into Germany of nearly 160 Vietnamese citizens, each of whom was charged between €5,000 and €20,000 for the journey.

The gang behind the conspiracy, which is said to have been under investigation since 2018, used companies it controlled in Germany and Romania to fraudulently secure valid Schengen visas for the migrants.

Once the Vietnamese nationals arrived in Germany, they were deprived of their belongings and forced to work for no pay until they had paid off the fee they were charged for their entry to Europe.

Migrants were first flown by plane from Vietnam to airports in Eastern Europe before being taken by car to various locations across Germany.

In a statement, Europol said it supported the operation by providing international coordination and operational assistance, deploying experts from its European Migrant Smuggling Centre to offer on-the-spot support to German authorities with the cross-checking of operational information.

Commenting on the arrests, Robert Crepinko, Head of Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre, said: “People involved in migrant smuggling are far from being benevolent individuals trying to help other people get a better life.

“They are ruthless criminals who will do everything to make money.

“This action today with the German authorities sends the clear message that Europol and its partners are determined to pursue those responsible for these terrible crimes.”

At the end of last month, Europol revealed that police in Germany had arrested the ringleader of a network that arranged bogus marriages for Indian nationals to help them gain European citizenship.

The 44-year-old Indian man, who lived in the German town of Elmshorn, was detained as a result of an investigation that began back in 2018.

The network led by the suspect is said to have facilitated illegal immigration by organising sham marriages, predominantly between Indian and Romanian nationals using forged documents.

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