Amendments imminent to toughen law

Amendments to strengthen the UAE's anti-trafficking law are expected to be introduced in the next few months.

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ABU DHABI // Amendments to strengthen the UAE's anti-trafficking law are expected to be introduced in the next few months, according to the co-ordinator of the national committee set up to combat the crime. Law 51, introduced in 2006, was the first in the region to address human trafficking and has since resulted in dozens of cases of modern-day slavery in UAE courts.

The legislation is being updated to place more emphasis on the protection and repatriation of victims, bringing it in line with the Palermo Protocol, a UN anti-trafficking convention that was ratified by the UAE last year. The amendments, announced in November, will consist of "wide steps", according to Dr Saeed al Ghufli, co-ordinator of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking. "I wish and I hope in 2010 we will be able to achieve more and to see more awareness and understanding about human trafficking, as well as finishing the law," he said.

Dr al Ghufli also expects progress over the next year on bilateral agreements between the UAE and countries where victims originate. "This is very important," he said, "because it is very clear that these crimes start in other countries." The UAE is in talks to sign agreements with Thailand, Armenia and Belarus this year to share information and spread awareness about the potential dangers faced by women accepting jobs abroad, he said.

The anti-trafficking committee has found that the traffickers and their victims often originate from the same country, making it more difficult for authorities here to uncover the crime - a challenge Dr al Ghufli hopes will be overcome with greater bilateral co-operation. Women trafficked to the UAE generally originate from countries in Asia, some Arab states and eastern Europe. However, according to Afra al Basti, the chief executive of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, the profiles of the victims keep changing, making them difficult to spot.

"Each month brings women of different ages, nationalities. Some of them are teenagers, others in their 30s or 20s," she said. "The big challenge is how to reach these people." A campaign expected to be introduced this year will provide women entering the country with emergency contact details if they find they have been trafficked. "I hope these women would not be scared to go to the police," Ms al Basti said. "But we have to reach them to tell them."

Currently there are only two shelters in the country, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with plans to open more in the Northern Emirates. The Ewaa Shelters for Women and Children opened in the capital a year ago, and Dubai Foundation for Women and Children opened its doors in 2007, following a decree by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to help victims of domestic violence and trafficked women.

"Everyone used to think that these women were just working as prostitutes," Ms al Basti said. "Now, more people realise that they are being forced." However, some sentences handed down under Law 51 have been criticised for being too lenient. In a case in December, a couple in Ajman were jailed for three years for forcing an Iraqi teenager to work as a prostitute after her parents sold her.