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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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Italian authorities to fine NGO rescue boats picking up migrants in Mediterranean

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Italian authorities to fine NGO rescue boats

The Italian government has passed new legislation that provides the country’s law enforcement authorities with the power to fine boats that rescue migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean as much as €50,000 ($56,500).

Italian officials confirmed the introduction of the new laws on Tuesday, just a few hours before the country’s interior minister Matteo Salvini announced the shutdown of a migrant reception centre in Sicily.

The new law could see NGO vessels that pick up migrants attempting to make the potentially deadly crossing hit with fines if they do so in Italian waters or attempt to dock at the country’s sea ports without permission.

Repeat offenders could face having their vessels seized by Italian authorities.

The Italian cabinet also approved new powers that will allow investigators to launch undercover probes into the activities of people smuggling organisations, and the use of electronic eavesdropping equipment on suspected organised immigration criminals.

Salvini said he believed the new rules would help improve the security of the country.

Raising concerns about the legislation, Roland Schilling, UNHCR Regional Representative to Southern Europe, commented: “At a time when European states have largely withdrawn from rescue efforts in the Central Mediterranean, NGO vessels are more crucial than ever. Without them, it is inevitable that more lives will be lost.”

Salvini yesterday threatened to use the new measures, which have not yet gone before Italy’s parliament, on a German NGO boat that picked up migrants off the coast of Libya without permission.

Pia Klemp, the female captain of the rescue ship, which is operated by the Sea Watch charity, could face as many as 20 years behind bars if she is convicted of illegally helping migrants to cross the Mediterranean.

Over 93,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the charges against her to be dropped.

Italy announced the new laws as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) revealed that seven people drowned and 57 were rescued during an operation to save migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean earlier this week.

The IOM said that more than half those on board the vessel on which the migrants were travelling had come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Angola, and that the deaths brought the number of would-be asylum seekers who have lost their lives on the so-called Eastern Mediterranean route to 41 so far this year.

“The Eastern Mediterranean route is this year’s busiest sea crossing lane for irregular migrants trying to reach Europe, with 9,660 arrivals to either Greece or Cyprus through 9 June, a slight increase over the 9,352 arrivals reported through 9 June last year,” the IOM said in a statement.

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Human trafficking gangs smuggling migrants into US made as much as $2.3 billion in 2017

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Organised immigration crime gangs made anywhere between $200 million and $2.3 billion helping migrants enter the US illegally in 2017, according to a new report published by the Rand Corporation.

The study, which was commissioned by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said the estimate was so wide owing to a lack of reliable data relating to general migration flows, how regularly migrants use the services of trafficking gangs, and what these organisations charge their customers.

Rand said a key finding of its research was that the organised illegal trafficking of migrants into the US involves a wide range of different “actors”, and that the groups involved in the people smuggling trade along the US southern border are typically informal and “based on relationships instead of well-established, enduring hierarchies”.

As a consequence, it is difficult for the DHS to effectively target organised immigration gangs, the report revealed, noting that local informal networks and ad-hoc groups are by nature less susceptible to disruption compared to more hierarchical organisations.

At one end of illicit trade, would-be migrants are able to pay people traffickers for “all-inclusive” packages costing upward of $10,000 to be smuggled from their point of departure into the US.

Those with fewer means can opt for a “pay-as-you-go” model, which involves migrants hiring local smugglers for each leg of their journey up to and over the American border, according to Rand, which said it was unable to provide estimates relating to how many migrants choose each option.

“Although targeting might be difficult, DHS could consider expanding existing efforts to investigate payments made to human smugglers, especially in the United States, and working more closely with formal and informal banking services to identify suspicious payments. DHS could also consider expanding current efforts to work with foreign law enforcement partners,” the report concluded.

“As DHS considers how to allocate resources, it might look to compare the size of the human smuggling market, as measured by estimated revenues, and the sizes of other illicit markets of concern.”

Separately, the AFP news agency reports that experts have warned that recent immigration curbs agreed between the US and Mexico could boost business for human trafficking gangs.

Javier Urbano, a researcher in international affairs at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, told AFP: “There will be more mechanisms of control, there will be greater rigidity, and that will cause an increase in the cost of crossing, which will strengthen organised crime’s business of trafficking people.”

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Canadian charity launches new helpline for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery

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The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking has launched a new nationwide multi-lingual helpline intended to support victims of crimes including forced labour and sex slavery.

As well as offering help and advice to victims of human trafficking, the free service will be used to gather primary data that could help authorities across Canada acquire a better understanding of the crime.

Data gathered by the service will offer investigators insight into how the organised criminal networks that are responsible for human trafficking offences operate, and provide victim support services with information that could help them offer more effective intervention strategies, and formulate awareness-raising campaigns to teach members of the public how to spot trafficking victims.

The hotline is to be staffed around the clock by qualified advisers who have received over 60 hours of victim-centred training provided by the centre’s technical consultant Polaris, which has been successfully operating a similar service in the US for more than a decade.

The centre has also launched a new website, which can be used by visitors to report trafficking cases, access information on the crime, browse a national directory of social services, and view education and outreach materials.

In a statement, CEO of the centre Barbara Gosse commented: “This hotline will provide critical resources to victims and survivors and will help law enforcement dismantle human trafficking networks across the country.

“People find it hard to believe, but human trafficking is a real threat to vulnerable individuals across this country. Law enforcement officials and survivors tell us that the statistics grossly underestimate the number of individuals, many of them children, trapped by this human rights abuse.

“We all have a moral and an ethical obligation to make a positive difference, and the hotline is a vital step in this process.”

Last year’s Global Slavery Index revealed that there were typically 17,000 victims of modern slavery in Canada on any given day.

The index found trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, primarily involving Canadian citizens as victims, is the most common form of modern slavery detected by authorities in the country, and that evidence suggests investigators there do not always identify victims quickly enough.

“The majority of sex trafficking victims are reportedly Canadian-born teenage girls, some as young as 13, who are recruited in various ways, including at school, through social media, and at shopping malls,” the index said.

“Techniques used by traffickers include building dependence by buying gifts and posing as boyfriends.”

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