Net closes on human traffickers

Officials say an increase in cases brought to court reflects the improvements being made as they broaden approach to dealing with crime.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - March 23rd, 2010:  An accountant from an African country who was forced to become a cleaner upon arrival in the UAE.  (Galen Clarke/The National)

A clearer picture of human trafficking in the UAE has emerged with the release of two reports on the efforts to combat the trade. Both conclude that local authorities have made improvements to deal with trafficking for sexual exploitation since the passage of federal Law 51 in 2006, issued specifically to address that crime.

But the studies also show more still needs to be done. The Government's 2009 to 2010 annual report, released in May by the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT), described a "thriving global business that generates billions of dollars a year", with links to other organised crimes such as drugs smuggling. "For the majority of trafficked persons, it is only when they arrive in the UAE that they realise that the work they are promised does not exist and they are forced instead to get employment in jobs or conditions to which they did not give their consent," the report stated.

In its annual Trafficking in Persons report, released in June, the US State Department upgraded the UAE from its Tier Two Watch List to the Tier Two category, thanks to improvements in fighting sex trafficking. The ranking goes from Tier One, the best mark, to Tier Three, the worst. The Government's report showed that the number of trafficking cases before UAE courts had doubled from the previous year. A total of 43 cases involving 86 victims were handled over the report's 12-month reporting period, up from 20 cases in 2008 to 2009 and just 10 in 2007. At least 35 of the 43 cases cited in the 2009 to 2010 report resulted in convictions.

During the past year, Law 51's special "organised gang" clause was used for the first time, bringing life sentences for seven men found guilty in January of trafficking 15 women and forcing them into prostitution. "I think we did very well at this stage, especially after three years of the national committee implementing the plan," said Dr Saeed al Ghufli, the co-ordinator of the NCCHT, established in 2007.

"But we understand there are many things we have to work on more." The increase in the number of court cases in 2009 is proof of some of the strides that have been made, Dr al Ghufli said. "Some people may say that an increase in the number of cases to 43 in 2009 is a negative thing," he said. "From my point of view it is not, it is a positive thing. "To have this number, this means the police, CID and other departments around the whole UAE, they are really doing a good job."

According to the Government report, the majority of victims in the UAE are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation, with many others ending up in forced labour. The Government also recently broadened its approach to dealing with the crime, establishing anti-trafficking units attached to various departments, such as the Ministry of Labour. However, although the US State Department's report cited improvements, including those in the prosecution and conviction of sex traffickers, it urged the Government to step up efforts to combat forced labour.

"There were no discernible anti- trafficking efforts against the forced labour of temporary migrant workers and domestic servants," the report found. Some migrant workers who come to work in the construction industry are "subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude and debt bondage as they struggle to pay off debts for recruitment fees", the report stated, recommending that the UAE "identify, investigate, and prosecute labour trafficking offences".

The US report also called for a more proactive approach to tracking down trafficked men and women. Some of the most recent, high-profile trafficking cases involved women who fled their captors. "We have passed the first stage where we are waiting until the case comes to the police," Dr al Ghulfi said. "The second stage, what we are seeing now, the public officers either in the police or the Ministry of Labour, they will go and search if there is a crime."

The Government's report detailed support given to rescued trafficking victims of various nationalities, including Arabs, Asians, Europeans and Africans. Temporary shelter and care was provided to 33 women and girls at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, and 38 victims ended up at the Ewaa Shelter in Abu Dhabi. Only three of the victims being cared for at the Dubai Foundation were rescued before being forced into prostitution, according to the report.

Two additional shelters are expected to open soon in Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah. But Dr al Ghufli said increases in public awareness must come along with better facilities and enforcement. "Maybe if you tell someone in the street about human trafficking, they'll say, 'What is that?'" he said. "But if you say that a lady has been jailed or put in an apartment and all the men come up, they will say it is wrong and a big crime.

"Public awareness needs a lot, it needs time, it needs cultural changes, and that will not come immediately."