ABU DHABI // Human trafficking and forced labour cases are showing an alarming increase as the UAE's dependence on foreign labour leaves it open to abuses by criminal gangs and unscrupulous employers, according to officials.
Law enforcement agencies insist they are doing all they can to combat the problem, which they say is "natural" for a developing country.
An official from the Ministry of Interior said that the Government is increasing efforts to curb trafficking, especially among labourers.
Brig Gen Jassim al Marzouki, the deputy director of human resources at Abu Dhabi Police, said it was "natural" to see a high number of labour trafficking victims as the country experienced rapid development.
"A country like the UAE is developing very fast and depends largely on foreign labourers who bring their problems with them. But there is still control over it," Brig Gen al Marzouki told the First Gulf Forum for Combating Human Trafficking Crimes in Abu Dhabi yesterday.
He said the Government had put in place additional measures to avoid worker exploitation, such as sending "social police" to labour camps to inform workers of their rights, and introducing a law that gave all workers the right to file a lawsuit against an offending employer. These efforts helped to limit the problem, he said.
"If some employers are not abiding by the law, it does not mean that it is a phenomenon in the UAE," he said.
Sarah Shuhail, the executive manager of Ewaa shelter for women and children, said her facility was seeing an increasing number of trafficking victims.
Trafficking of women and children had up to now been the most common form of exploitation, according to Brig Gen Ahmed al Muharami, the director of the human rights department at the Ministry of Interior.
But cases of forced labour, where employers exert control over workers' by withholding their passports and restricting their movements, were also rising.
Campaigners are pushing for tougher sentences for unscrupulous employers.
Alison Friedman, the senior human trafficking co-ordinator at the US State Department, called for harsher punishments against trafficking.
"Stricter jail sentences - it's the best way," she said. "Many from South and South East Asia willingly travel to the UAE but are victims of forced labour. [Employers] withhold passports, control [employees'] movements."
Ms Friedman said the Ministry of Labour should also punish recruitment agencies and ensure that victims are not held criminally responsible.
Youla Haddadin, at the office of the high commissioner for human rights, said the explanations for the increasing number of cases were complex, and official figures may represent only the tip of the iceberg.
"The reason for this is sophisticated," she said. "It could be that with more awareness, more cases have been revealed."
Ms Haddadin also called for tougher controls on recruitment agencies. She described a recent case where a woman and her husband had both arrived in the country on work visas, but had fallen victim to traffickers who conspired to have the husband's visa revoked. The husband was forced to return home, while his wife was coerced into the sex trade.
A report by the US State Department last year said the country was falling behind in combating worker exploitation, despite progress in prosecuting and convicting sex trade offenders.
The number of human trafficking cases rose from just 10 in 2007 to 43 in 2009, according to the annual report on human trafficking.