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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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People smuggling gangs behind increase in number of migrants attempting to sneak into UK

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Sixteen migrants were rescued from boats in the English Channel on Friday and Sunday morning.

On Friday, eight men claiming to be from Iran were picked up from a dingy floating off the coast of Kent by British rescue workers.

They were found to be in good health after being brought ashore and checked over by ambulance staff.

In the early hours of this morning, an additional eight migrants were rescued by French police after they were spotted floating in a dinghy off Calais.

Coast guard officers from both the UK and France were mobilised to search for the dingy after the migrants were spotted at around 02:00.

The migrants, who are also thought to be Iranian, were found to be suffering from hypothermia when they were picked up and taken ashore to Boulogne at around 07:00.

More than 100 migrants of Iranian origin have been intercepted while attempting to sneak into the UK over the course of this month.

French authorities said they suspect the uptick in the number of migrants attempting to get into Britain was being driven by organised people smuggling gangs operating on the French side of the Channel.

Officials in France said the gangs are increasingly stealing boats, pleasure craft and speed boats on which to transport their human cargo across the water to the UK.

Responding to the increase in the number of migrants attempting to enter the UK, the Home Office on Friday said: “We have stepped up deployments of our coastal patrol vessels along the south-east coast in light of recent events. However, this is not an issue that can be resolved by maritime resources alone.

“That is why Immigration Enforcement and Border Force work closely with partners in the UK and overseas to strike people-smuggling at source – identifying and dismantling the organised crime groups that facilitate illegal immigration.

“Nobody should put their life at risk attempting to smuggle themselves into the UK across the Channel and, despite recent events, crossing the Channel in this way thankfully remains relatively rare.”

Speaking with the Times last week, Boulogne-sur-Mer state prosecutor Pascal Marconville said the rise in the number of migrants attempting to enter the UK was being driven by people smugglers telling them that reaching Britain will be more difficult after Brexit.

Marconville said the gangs are telling potential clients that the UK will improve border controls when it departs the EU in March next year.

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EU study recommends criminalisation of paying for sex as most effective way to tackle forced prostitution

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A two-year EU-funded study has concluded that criminalising the purchase of sex is the most effective way to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery for the purposes of prostitution.

Researchers working on the report examined legislative approaches to prostitution and trafficking in six EU member states, and recommended that the introduction of a criminal offence for buying a person for sexual acts is the only effective means by which governments can reduce demand for victims of human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

The study – which was compiled by agencies in Cyprus, Finland, France, Ireland, Lithuania and Sweden – said the introduction of laws relating to prostitution and human trafficking need to be accompanied by a comprehensive range of measures that include enforcement policies, protection and support for all victims of sexual exploitation, monitoring and evaluation, and preventative initiatives.

Monica O’Connor, co-founder of the University College Dublin’s Sexual Exploitation Research Project, and author of the report, commented: “In Sweden, and now in France and Ireland, the laws flow from the understanding of prostitution as a form of violence against women.

“This means the demand to buy girls or women to supply sexual acts is not regarded as legitimate or acceptable within society.

“The purchase of sex is a criminal offence, while those being exploited are decriminalised.”

The Republic of Ireland made it an offence to buy sexual services back in February 2017 after passing a law designed to protect vulnerable women forced into prostitution against their will.

Ireland’s decision followed the introduction of similar legislation in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Northern Ireland, where men who are caught using sex workers are subject to punishment while those forced into prostitution are treated as victims.

The new EU report, which pools findings made by researchers in each participating country,   recommends that the introduction of laws prohibiting the purchase of sexual services must be accompanied by measures designed to ensure there are no negative consequences for trafficked women.

According to the study, any new legalisation that outlaws the purchase of sexual services should include measures that would ensure victims forced to work as prostitutes would be offered protection, accommodation, early legal intervention, as well as legal advocacy and support.

Former sex worker Mia de Faoite, who now campaigns to prevent human trafficking, said: “This comparative report is most welcome, once again highlighting that targeting the demand through criminalising those who purchase human beings is the most effective way to reduce trafficking of women and girls into prostitution.”

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Illegal migrants and people smuggling gangs taking advantage of weaknesses at UK ports, watchdog finds

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A new report from Britain’s Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has warned that illegal migrants and people trafficking gangs may be exploiting staff shortages at sea ports in the south of England.

In his report, David Bolt reveals that Border Force officers told him the agency was “resourced to fail”, with borders “not secured by any stretch of the imagination” due to shortages at Dover, Portsmouth, Southampton and Poole.

Bolt found that Border Force staff routinely fail to search vehicles with blacked-out windows, and that customs officers feel illegal migrants are armed with better intelligence then they are, giving them the upper hand as they attempt to sneak into the UK unnoticed.

Government inspectors found Border Force staff regularly fail to search the boots of vehicles that pass through ports in the south of England, and that in some cases checks are not carried out due to a lack of staff who are able operate vehicle scanners.

In some cases, ferries travelling to the UK from Europe are able to land at ports that are not even staffed with Border Force officials.

Customs staff said they were confident that illegal migrants and smuggling gangs were using their knowledge of weaknesses in border control on the south coast of England to their advantage.

Border Force managers said staff shortages had impacted the agency’s ability to undertake core functions, while officers told inspectors there was too few of them to meet increasing operational demands.

Bolt’s report revealed that the number of clandestine entry attempts detected at south coast ports fell from 1,119 in 2016-2017 to 882 in 2017-2018.

While accepting that the UK’s looming exit from the European Union was making life harder for Border Force employees, Bolt commented: “[I]t is difficult to escape the impression that Border Force believes it knows best and will make changes only on its own terms and at its own pace.

“During 2019-20, I had planned to complete my series of seaport and coastline inspections with an inspection of the west coast. The responses to the south coast seaports inspection, and the timescales quoted, suggest that I may need to rethink this.”

In June, Border Force said it was recruiting 1,000 officers nationally to “meet normal staff turnover”, as well as an additional 300 frontline officers ahead of Brexit.

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