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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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Eastern Europeans easy prey for traffickers despite knowledge of exploitative practices, IOM survey finds

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Eastern Europeans easy prey for traffickers

A poll conducted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has revealed that Eastern Europeans are easy prey for people smuggling gangs and human traffickers despite having high-level knowledge of organised immigration crime.

The Survey on Migration and Human Trafficking in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Georgia, which was conducted on behalf of the IOM by market research agency Info Sapiens, found that while 86% of Ukrainians are aware of human trafficking, 13% would cross the border irregularly, work without official employment status in exploitive conditions without freedom of movement, or hand over their passport to an employer.

In Georgia, 81% of respondents were found to have a good understanding of human trafficking, with 24% willing to put themselves at risk.

In Belarus, the figures were 85% and 11% respectively, while in Moldova, they were 75% and 17%.

Commenting on the results of the survey, Anh Nguyen, Chief of Mission at IOM Ukraine, said: “IOM is the leading provider of assistance to vulnerable migrants and victims of trafficking in the region, with more than 16,000 trafficking survivors assisted since 2000 in Ukraine.

“The latest survey findings about high levels of irregular employment among migrant workers from Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia, as well as our empirical knowledge that Ukrainians prefer to look for jobs abroad through informal channels, show the high need for intensified trafficking prevention affords in the region.”

Last month, an operation conducted jointly by police in Spain and Lithuania resulted in the dismantling of a gang that trafficked women for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

The leaders of the criminal network, two of whom were arrested in a day of action targeting the gang, were said to have used extreme violence to force their victims to work as prostitutes in Lithuania.

Also in November, four members of an eastern European sex trafficking gang were handed prison terms by a Scottish court that totalled more than 36 years after they were convicted of smuggling Slovakian women to Scotland before forcing them to work as prostitutes and enter sham marriages.

Back in October, Secretary General of the Council of Europe Marija Pejčinović Burić used the annual European Anti-trafficking Day to urge EU member states to ensure victims of human trafficking and modern slavery were able to access justice, including financial compensation, for the abuses they suffer.

Explaining how human traffickers keep their victims in the most appalling of conditions, Burić said: “Traffickers must be rigorously prosecuted and punished, but justice must also be done to the victims of trafficking – by making sure they receive compensation, they are protected from being trafficked again and they are given sufficient help to put their lives back together.”

 

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Customs agents find 17-year-old migrant squeezed into car’s dashboard on US/Mexico border

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17-year-old migrant squeezed into car’s dashboard

US border control officers have discovered a 17-year-old boy hidden behind the dashboard of a car crossing the US/Mexico border.

Agents from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) made the discovery after pulling over a 28-year-old man and his 21-year-old male passenger as they entered the US while driving a 2001 Ford Taurus.

After one officer referred all occupants and the vehicle for further examination, the Mexican teenager was found squeezed into a seemingly purpose-built special compartment behind the car’s dashboard.

Both the driver and the passenger, who the CBP said were both US citizens, were detained and taken into custody to await criminal proceedings.

Once he had been extracted from the vehicle, the migrant was taken to a secure location for a medical assessment and further processing.

Checks conducted by CBP investigators revealed that the boy had previously been caught attempting to enter the US illegally back in March using a document that did not belong to him.

CBP Officer in Charge Sergio Beltran commented: “Smuggling a person in a confined space is dangerous and can have serious consequences.

“In this instance no one was seriously injured during this attempted illegal entry.”

In a statement, the CBP said that being smuggled in confined spaces can be extremely dangerous and can lead to serious injuries and even death, particularly if travelling so close to a vehicle’s motor as the 17-year-old Mexican migrant was.

Last week, the UK’s MailOnline reported that police in Spain had discovered two teenage migrants hidden behind the dashboard and under the back seats of a vehicle as they attempted to sneak across the border from Morocco.

The migrants, who are reported to have been found by customs officers using heartbeat detectors, were trying to get into the Spanish enclave of Melilla in north Africa, which borders Morocco.

Police arrested the driver of the vehicle, a 30-year-old Moroccan man, on suspicion of human trafficking, according to the Mail.

Back in October 2017, Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) warned that people smugglers were charging migrants as much as €7,000 ($7,703) each to be crammed into vehicle engine compartments and trafficked across borders.

The EMSC said in a report that traffickers were stopping their vehicles close to border crossings and telling migrants to climb into the space between a car or van’s engine and bonnet.

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Florida police arrest 104 in sex trafficking crackdown, including suspects who attempted to buy girl aged 13

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Florida police arrest 104 in sex trafficking crackdown

Police in Florida have arrested more than 100 people over the course of a five-month crackdown on sex trafficking.

During Operation Trade Secrets II, which began in June, investigators from Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office detained a total of 104 people.

Seventy-six of these were men arrested on suspicion of attempting to pay for sexual services, while 28 were women held on suspicion of working in the sex trade.

The first Operation Trade Secrets initiative, which ran from January until June this year, resulted in the detention of 85 people.

As well as focussing on websites and forums known for offering the sale of sexual services, officers taking part in the latest iteration of the operation also turned their attention to strip clubs, massage parlours and motels throughout the county.

In addition, female officers took to the streets to pose as prostitutes in order to catch those looking to pay for sexual services.

Sheriff Chad Chronister used a statement on his office’s website to highlight what he described as two of the “more despicable” cases the force encountered while conducting the operation.

These involved two men, Jason Fitzgerald, 36, and Luis Colon, 29, meeting separately with an undercover detective posing as the stepfather of a 13-year-old girl he was apparently willing to sell for sex.

“Fitzgerald and Colon showed up at a trailer park in North Tampa. They began negotiating a price for sex with the child, and when they were told they could take their pick, having sex with a 14-year-old girl or a 13-year-old girl inside one of the trailers, they jumped at the chance to be with the even younger girl,” said Chronister.

“Predators like this do not belong on the streets of Hillsborough County.”

Both men were arrested and charged with human trafficking for commercial sexual activity, traveling to meet a minor to solicit certain illegal acts and unlawful use of a two-way communications device.

Earlier this month, a coalition of organisations in Miami launched a new outdoor advertising campaign across the city to raise awareness of sex trafficking ahead of the upcoming Super Bowl in February.

The campaign aims to raise awareness of sex trafficking involving the exploitation of children as young as 12 in posters displayed on billboards, at train stations elsewhere.

Miami Super Bowl Host Committee Chairman Rodney Barreto said: “Earlier this year we launched our Stop Sex Trafficking Campaign – an unprecedented effort involving local, state and federal agencies, as well as a significant number of other partners who have come together to combat sex trafficking with new tools and zero tolerance.”

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