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Human trafficking

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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Police across Europe arrest scores during child trafficking crackdown

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Law enforcement agencies across Europe took part in a coordinated crackdown on child trafficking at the beginning of last month, Europol revealed earlier today.

During the first week of July, police across 22 member states took part in an EMPACT trafficking in human beings campaign that resulted in the identification of 51 children and 72 adults who police suspected could be potential victims of exploitation.

The children, the youngest of which was aged just two, were exploited for the purposes of labour, forced begging, and sexual services, Europe’s law enforcement agency said.

The operation also resulted in the discovery of criminals with links to migrant smuggling and the fake document trade, triggering the investigation of 45 new cases.

In total, the crackdown resulted in the detention of 24 suspects who were questioned over their alleged links to the human trafficking trade, and a further 61 suspects who were detained in relation to other crimes.

“The actions focused mainly on hotspots for sexual exploitation, forced begging and forced criminality (e.g. pickpocketing and minor thefts), and intensified activities at border crossing points,” Europol said in a statement.

“As the identification of victims of trafficking in human beings remains very challenging, particularly the identification of child victims, many participating countries also undertook prevention and awareness raising activities.”

News of the success of the operation comes after UK officials last week warned that people smugglers and human traffickers are using Facebook to attract potential victims.

Speaking with the Evening Standard last week, National Crime Agency (NCA) Deputy Director Tom Dowdall said migrant deaths in the Mediterranean remain high and that victims were too often being recruited via the social network.

The NCA said it had found more than 800 Facebook pages that were linked to organised crime gangs involved in the trafficking of migrants into and across Europe.

In comments made separately to the Reuters news agency, Organised Immigration Crime Taskforce boss Chris Hogben warned that Facebook is failing to prevent people smugglers from luring victims through its platforms.

“More often than not, these adverts are quite reassuring, they create an illusion this is very much normal travel, it’s safe, it’s easy,” he said.

“Tragically, when you look at quite a few of these adverts they might be advertising big luxury yachts or ships. When the migrants turn up to get transported they find they are being packed onto a rib or a small boat without safety jackets.”

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Spanish authorities arrest people smugglers who trafficked migrants into France

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300 illegal immigrants to France.

Police in Spain have arrested seven suspected people smugglers who are alleged to have been behind an organised trafficking gang that facilitated the travel of almost 300 illegal immigrants to France.

Members of the gang are said to have first organised the smuggling of French-speaking African countries to the north of Spain, before arranging their onward transfer to France.

As a result of a day of action conducted at the end of last month, six suspects were detained in the northern Spanish province of Guipuzcoa, while another was held in Madrid.

The operation also resulted in the rescue of illegal immigrants from a safe house in Guipuzcoa, where they were preparing to be smuggled into France.

Gang members, who were of Sub-Saharan origin, charged migrants to be smuggled to Spain by boat from countries such as Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal, typically having first provided them with fake travel documents.

Once the migrants had arrived safely in Spain, members of the gang would contact them in order to arrange their transfer to a safe house and onward travel to France.

The action day was supported by European law enforcement agency Europol, which provided investigators with analytical capabilities, and the deployment of an expert with a mobile office and Universal Forensic Extraction Device.

Spanish police began an investigation into the activities of the gang in January after observing some of its members taking part in what was described as “suspicious” meetings.

In a statement, Europol said: “The increasing involvement of organised criminal networks in facilitating illegal immigration in recent times called for an enhanced and coordinated response from European law enforcement agencies.

“Europol was tasked with strengthening its capabilities and launched the European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) in February 2016.

“The centre focuses on geographical criminal hotspots, and on building a better capability across the EU to fight organised people smuggling networks operating in them.”

According to the International Organisation for Migration, some 24,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Spain by sea this year, making the country a more popular destination than Italy and Greece for traffickers.

Separately, the German government yesterday said it had struck an agreement with Spain to return migrants who had already registered there first.

The agreement covers migrants who registered in Spain as refugees whose details were recorded in the European Dactyloscopy fingerprint database for identifying asylum-seekers and people crossing borders in an irregular manner.

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Teenage sex trafficking victim meets US postal worker who helped her escape captors

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A 16-year-old girl who was forced into sexual slavery by US traffickers has been reunited with the postal worker who helped her escape from her harrowing ordeal.

Meeting with Ivan Cristotomo last Thursday in Sacramento, California, Crystal Allen described how she was drugged and abused by her captors, who she said tied her to a chair and watched over her constantly to ensure she could not escape.

Speaking with local TV station KCRA, the teenager explained how she was handed over to a pimp by a “friend” after she ran away from home, and was then beaten, drugged and repeatedly raped over a three-month period.

“I just cried all the time and prayed that I’d get to see my mom again,” she said.

“They made it impossible [to escape]. They had guard dogs and people that would watch us all the time and not let us leave. I was tied to chairs.”

Allen made a bid for freedom when she was being driven around by her captor, jumping out of their car and taking one of their mobile phones with her.

Crisostomo said he came across the distressed teen while on his round after she had fled, and quickly realised she must have been running away from something incredibly distressing.

The postal worker helped Allen call her mother, and allowed her to sit safely with him in his mail van while they waited for police to arrive.

Crisostomo told Fox 40: “I hear this crying, this desperate crying. I saw her hiding behind this kind of bush, kind of tree.

“She started to point to her arm, saying, ‘They were putting things in me. They were putting things in me. They are coming to get me’.”

Police have so far failed to indicate whether any arrests have been made in connection with the case.

Last month, the Walk Free Foundation’s biennial Global Slavery Index revealed that incidents of modern slavery in developed countries is far higher than had been believed, noting how one in every 800 people living in the US is a victim of forced labour, sexual servitude or forced marriage.

In a statement, Walk Free Foundation founder Andrew Forrest said: “The United States is one of the most advanced countries in the world yet has more than 400,000 modern slaves working under forced labour conditions.

“This is a truly staggering statistic and demonstrates just how substantial this issue is globally. This is only possible through a tolerance of exploitation.”

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