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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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Minnesota police snare dozens in online child sex trafficking sting operation

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Police in Minnesota arrested dozens of people on suspicion of child sex trafficking offences during the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament over the weekend, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) has said.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the BCA revealed that its Human Trafficking Investigators Task Force conducted a sting operation during which undercover agents and investigators posed as minors or sex buyers, and chatted with suspects on multiple social media platforms.

Decoy agents posed as children aged 15 and under, offering sexual services on numerous websites.

Once offenders made contact, they were told to travel a local hotel, apartment or house to meet the child with whom they were hoping to have sex, at which point they were arrested by waiting police officers.

The sting operation resulted in 47 suspects being charged with solicitation of a minor, while an additional 11 were booked on probable cause for sex trafficking and the promotion of prostitution.

Describing the success of the operation in a statement, St Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said: “While the eyes of the basketball world were focused on the court at US Bank Stadium, some were attempting to hide in the shadows of our great community, trafficking and exploiting women and girls, inflicting unimaginable physical and emotional harm, and profiting from pain.

“I’m proud to be part of a law enforcement community that wouldn’t stand for it, that collaborated to shine a bright light on the perpetrators and that committed to doing everything possible to help the victim survivors.”

The joint operation, which involved investigators from 33 law enforcement agencies, was launched to coincide with the arrival of tens of thousands of fans for the basketball tournament, which investigators said had prompted criminals to traffic and exploit young women and girls into the area for the purposes of prostitution.

BCA Superintendent Drew Evans said: “This operation is an example of the aggressive steps necessary to stop traffickers and johns who buy and sell people for sex in our communities.

“We can’t let this crime continue, and we must work together to stop it.”

Separately, it has been widely reported that American actress Allison Mack has admitted to sex trafficking charges linked to a cult led by self-styled self-help guru Keith Raniere.

Confessing to recruiting women by telling them they were joining a female mentorship group, Mack told a Brooklyn court: “I have come to the conclusion that I must take full responsibility for my conduct and that’s why I am pleading guilty today.”

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Sex traffickers use social isolation and manufactured conflict to control child victims

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A study conducted by researchers at Rutgers University has examined the relationship that develops between child sex trafficking victims and the criminal gang members behind their exploitation.

In a paper published in the latest edition of the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, Rosario Sanchez, a PhD candidate at Rutgers School of Nursing, explores how sex trafficking victims are manipulated into forming complex psychological bonds with their captors, who use a number of tools to create exploitative relationships with the young people on whom they prey.

After reviewing research on trauma bonding and sex trafficking from 1990 to 2017, Sanchez discovered that sex traffickers use severe power imbalances between themselves and their victims as a means by which to create these bonds.

Traffickers also use alternating brutal and seductive behaviour, as well as social isolation, which results in victims perceiving that they would be unable to escape from their predicament.

According to the research, members of trafficking gangs use conflict and favouritism to turn them against one another.

On top of this, shame felt by trafficking victims in relation to the sexual acts they are forced to perform causes them to become withdrawn and dependent on their captors, perceiving the trafficking gang members who hold them as their trustworthy protectors, while at the same time coming to view police, health care professionals and even their own families with fear and suspicion.

Explaining how she hopes her work will help law enforcement investigators and health care professionals better identify child sex trafficking victims, Sanchez said: “In sex trafficking of children, captivity is followed by this previously unrecognised process now identified as ‘trauma coercive bonding’.

“During recruitment, the trafficker creates an emotional bond with the victim – then replaces it with primal terror. Unpredictable assaults and death threats alternate with occasional, false expressions of romance or kindness.

“Confused about what constitutes intimacy, safety and love, these children feel responsible for the abuse, protect the abuser and feel remorse, shame and guilt when the abuse stops.”

During the course of her research, Sanchez found that the trauma coercive bonding process disrupts victims’ social and emotional development, and can lead to physical and mental health conditions that persist long into adulthood, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-destructive behaviour and chronic stress.

Sanchez said gaining a better understanding of how this bond affects children will help law enforcement officers and health care professionals identify and rescue sex trafficking victims.

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New study reveals typical profile of child sex trafficking victims in Texas

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Child sex trafficking victims in the US state of Texas are not adequately identified by law enforcement agencies and spend much of their lives being exploited, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

The report found that the most common victims of sex trafficking across the state are vulnerable children and young people who have previously surffered abuse and neglect, and those who have been made homeless.

Authors of the study discovered that children and young people who lack trusted relationships and suffer from economic instability are at particular risk of being targeted by sex traffickers, and that youth who leave foster care or detention centres are also particularly vulnerable.

According to the report, cisgender girls, young women and members of the LGBTQ community are most likely to fall victim to sex traffickers.

The study also found that some 73% of individuals who had experienced sex trafficking across Texas had also engaged in un-coerced survival sex at some point during their lives, and that around half of individuals who experienced sex trafficking had been forced to participate in commercial sex by a romantic partner.

Explaining how the paths into and out of child sex trafficking are complex, Bruce Kellison, Principal Investigator and Co-Director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas, commented: “Victims are not who we typically think of when we conjure images of the sex trafficked child or youth — that of a young woman taken by a stranger and locked away.

“Traffickers are drawn to vulnerable kids of all genders and exploit them.

“Sometimes it’s someone the child already knows and trusts. Other times, it’s someone who offers them a way to fill basic needs the child lacks like food, housing and clothing.”

Elsewhere, Bloomberg reports that 50 women who claim they were victims of sex trafficking are suing Salesforce for knowingly providing Backpage.com with customised tools to market prostitutes to “pimps, johns, and traffickers”.

American authorities closed Backpage.com in April last year after the classified listings website was repeatedly accused of facilitating sex trafficking.

In the suit, lawyers acting for the women claim: “Salesforce knew the scourge of sex trafficking because it sought publicity for trying to stop it.

“But at the same time, this publicly traded company was, in actuality, among the vilest of rogue companies, concerned only with their bottom line.

“And human beings—many more than just these 50—were raped and abused because of it.”

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