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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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Scottish police launch crackdown on modern slavery and human trafficking

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Police in Scotland have launched a new campaign to raise awareness of human trafficking, modern slavery and sexual exploitation.

The Police Scotland effort is intended help educate members of the public about the fact that these types of offences are routinely hidden in “plain sight”, and that those who commit them are often linked to serious organised crime networks.

Launching the campaign this morning, the force revealed that 44 women and two men have identified themselves as victims of trafficking in Scotland for the purposes of sexual exploitation since the beginning of this year, seven of whom were girls under the age of 18.

One female victim who was saved by police while she was being forced to work as a prostitute in Glasgow was made to sell her body for at least eight hours a day, seven days a week, while her traffickers charged customers £120 per hour for her services.

The woman had only been in the country for three months.

Police Scotland also noted how more than 1,700 adverts relating to people involved in prostitution in the country appeared on the internet over the course of just 24 hours.

Commenting on the new campaign, Assistant Chief Constable Gillian MacDonald, Crime and Protection lead for Police Scotland, said: “Sexual exploitation, or prostitution, is highly lucrative for criminal gangs who exploit people and place them at risk of significant harm…

“People are being trafficked into and around Scotland and it is unacceptable that people are being bought and sold, exploited and abused in this way. We are asking people to be aware and to report if they believe someone is being trafficked or exploited.”

Back in June, British anti-slavery charity Unseen revealed that almost 300 victims of alleged labour exploitation had been recorded in Scotland since its hotline was launched 18 months beforehand.

Unseen identified 82 cases involving 297 potential victims of trafficking and exploitation based on calls and online reports to its UK-wide helpline.

Andrew Wallis, CEO of Unseen said: “This report underlines the fact that slavery is all around us. It is at the car wash, the nail bar, the takeaway and the hotel, as well as the farms that grow our food.

“It is not a problem taking place far away that we can’t do anything about, it’s under our noses and we can arm ourselves by learning to spot the signs of slavery and report it to the helpline.”

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UN extends member states’ mandate to crack down on people smugglers in Mediterranean

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The UN has sought to improve member states’ ability to crack down on migrant smuggling across the Mediterranean by extending the authorisation of vessel inspections and seizures off the coast of Libya.

A resolution put forward by the UK Government that called for the extension of the authorisation for a year was unanimously backed by all 15 members of the Security Council, which said in a statement that it condemns “all acts of migrant smuggling and human trafficking into, through and from the territory, and off the coast, of Libya, which undermine the country’s stabilisation and endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of people”.

The Council said the authorisation had been extended with a view towards saving the lives of vulnerable migrants forced onto unseaworthy vessels by people trafficking gangs who care little for their safety once they have been paid.

Speaking after the resolution was adopted, Antoine Ignace Michon, from the French mission to the UN, welcomed the Council’s support for the EU’s efforts to tackle human trafficking, but urged member states to treat all refugees and migrants with dignity and in full compliance with international human rights law.

The resolution was passed as it was reported that dozens of migrants had drowned in the western Mediterranean after waiting for hours to be recused from a semi-sunken smugglers’ vessel.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said 26 survivors were taken ashore to the Moroccan town of Nador on Monday afternoon after they had been left stranded in the sinking boat for more than 36 hours.

Speaking with the Reuters news agency, IOM spokesperson Joel Millman said: “The boat was adrift since Sunday with 60 people aboard. At least 34 have drowned, it looks like there were 26 survivors.”

Taking to Twitter, Spanish rights activist Helena Maleno wrote: “34 dead, among them a baby, when a makeshift boat with 60 people on board sank… off Morocco.”

People smugglers are increasingly attempting to traffic their human cargo into Europe from North Africa via Spain, thanks to a crackdown by law enforcement authorities on vessels launched from countries such as Libya and Turkey.

A report published at the beginning of last month by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) revealed that illegal migrant and refugee arrivals by sea and land increased by 130% in Spain over the first seven months of the year, rising to 27,600 from 12,100 in 2017.

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Facebook responds to lawsuit accusing it of complicity with sex traffickers

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Facebook responds to lawsuit

Facebook has responded to a lawsuit in which an alleged sex trafficking victim claims the social network was instrumental in her grooming and knew that its platform was being used to lure children into prostitution.

The Texas woman is seeking damages in excess of $10,000 after she was allegedly raped, beaten and sold into the sex trade at the age of 15 after meeting a trafficker online who posed as a Facebook “friend”.

In a lawsuit that also names the now-shuttered Backpage.com and its founders, the woman claims the social media giant’s “morally bankrupt culture” left her vulnerable to predators, and was a factor in her being groomed online by a trafficker who forced her into prostitution.

The suit claims the woman became a Facebook “friend” with her trafficker in 2012, after she noticed he appeared to have connections with some of her real-life friends.

It goes on to allege that the trafficker consoled her after she had an argument with her mother, but became abusive after picking her up from her home, proceeding to beat and rape her, before offering her sexual services for sale on Backpage.com.

The woman argues that Facebook should have vetted her trafficker’s true identity before allowing him to use its platform, and should have warned her that the social network was used by sex traffickers to groom potential victims.

Commenting on the contents of the lawsuit, the woman’s attorney, Annie McAdams, said: “For over a decade Facebook has been providing predators unrestricted platform to prey on victims.

“Profiting from connecting people requires you to protect those with whom you connect.”

Responding to the allegations contained in the suit in a written statement, Facebook said: “Human trafficking is abhorrent and is not allowed on Facebook.

“We use technology to thwart this kind of abuse and we encourage people to use the reporting links found across our site so that our team of experts can review the content swiftly.

“Facebook also works closely with anti-trafficking organizations and other technology companies, and we report all apparent instances of child sexual exploitation to NCMEC (the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children).”

In the UK, news of the case prompted a number of child protection charities to call on Facebook to report how many potential child abusers it has discovered using its platform to help  law enforcement authorities better understand the full scale of the problem.

The Daily Telegraph quotes the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) as saying: “We simply don’t know the full extent of harms faced by UK children online because Facebook and other social media platforms are under no obligation to publish this information.”

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