US Trafficking in Persons Report: Dubai a Hub for Trafficking

Oct 05 2017
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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: TIER 2

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a destination and transit country for men and women predominantly from South, Southeast, and Central Asia and Eastern Europe who are subjected to labor and sex trafficking. Migrant workers, who comprise over 95 percent of the UAE’s private sector workforce, are recruited primarily from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, and East, South, and Southeast Asia; some of these workers face forced labor in the UAE. Women from some of these countries travel willingly to the UAE to work as domestic workers, secretaries, beauticians, and hotel cleaners, but some are subjected to forced labor through unlawful passport withholding, restrictions on movement, nonpayment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse. Restrictive sponsorship laws for foreign domestic workers give employers power to control domestic workers’ movements, threaten them with abuse of legal processes, and make them vulnerable to exploitation. Men from South Asia are recruited to work in the UAE in the construction sector; some are subjected to forced labor through debt bondage to repay recruitment fees. In some cases, employers declare bankruptcy and flee the country, abandoning their employees in conditions that leave them vulnerable to further exploitation. Some source-country labor recruitment companies hire workers with false employment contracts, where the terms and conditions are never honored or are changed, such that workers are forced into involuntary servitude and debt bondage once in the UAE. Some women from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, East and Southeast Asia, East Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco are subjected to forced prostitution in the UAE. In 2014, media attention focused on reports alleging official complicity with the exploitation of workers on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, including passport withholding, abuse, detention, and deportation of about 500 workers after their attempt to strike.

The Government of the United Arab Emirates does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government prosecuted 15 sex trafficking cases in 2014. It continued to implement victim identification procedures, refer sex trafficking victims to protection services, and fund shelters assisting such victims. The government’s anti-trafficking efforts continued to largely focus on sex trafficking. It did not make extensive efforts to criminally investigate and prosecute forced labor offenses or identify and protect forced labor victims—especially male forced labor victims. The government provided avenues to settle migrant workers’ complaints of abuse through hotlines and a formal process for disputes of unpaid wages. Outside of these mechanisms, however, some forced labor victims remained unidentified, unprotected, or unwilling to come forward. In January 2015, the government promulgated amendments to victim protection clauses of Federal Law 51, including non-penalization of victims for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking. The government continued to implement numerous awareness campaigns, and held trainings, workshops, and conferences for labor recruitment agencies and police.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES:

Significantly increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and punish labor trafficking offenses, and convict and punish trafficking offenders, including recruitment agents and employers; implement the draft law addressing the protection of domestic workers’ rights; increase use of standard procedures for the identification of trafficking victims among foreign workers subjected to forced labor, including those apprehended for violations of immigration laws and domestic workers who have fled their employers; provide protection services to all victims of trafficking, including by extending protection to victims of forced labor on par with those available for victims of forced prostitution; ensure all trafficking victims, especially those who experience forced labor, are not incarcerated, fined, or otherwise penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, and treat male and female victims equally; allow all male victims of trafficking, including both sex trafficking and forced labor, access to services at the new shelter for male victims; enforce prohibitions on withholding workers’ passports; and reform the sponsorship system so it does not provide excessive power to sponsors or employers in granting and sustaining the legal status of workers.

PROSECUTION

The government sustained its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. Federal Law 51 of 2006 prohibits all forms of trafficking and prescribes penalties ranging from one year to life in prison as well as fines and deportation. These penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In 2014, the government prosecuted 15 sex trafficking cases involving 46 defendants; six cases resulted in the conviction of 11 traffickers while the remaining nine cases continued pending prosecution at the end of 2014. The government reported trafficking convictions involved stiff penalties up to life imprisonment. In May 2014, the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court convicted three police officers for their involvement in sex trafficking; one received a sentence of eight years’ imprisonment, while two received sentences of three years’ imprisonment. In two separate cases, three additional individuals convicted of trafficking received terms of imprisonment of two to three years. The number of prosecutions decreased for the second consecutive year, from 19 sex trafficking prosecutions in 2013 and 47 in 2012. The government attributes the lower number to a decline in the prevalence of sex trafficking, partially as a result of its prosecution of these cases, and its prevention and awareness efforts. The government did not report referring any labor trafficking offenders for prosecution, compared with one labor trafficking offender referred the previous reporting period.

While authorities penalized labor violators, the government rarely prosecuted potential forced labor cases under the country’s anti-trafficking law. Workers filed labor complaints through hotlines, in person, or through the Ministry of Labor (MOL). In 2014, the MOL labor relations office settled 6,798 wage-related complaints and referred 479 wage disputes for prosecution. The government did not report its investigation of any of these complaints or labor violations for potential forced labor crimes. The government continued to respond to and investigate workers’ complaints of unpaid wages through a dispute resolution process and the Wages Protection System (WPS), which is intended to ensure the payment of wages to workers and punish employers with administrative and financial penalties for failing to comply; MOL’s referral of 479 wage disputes for resolution in 2014 was a significant increase from the 188 referred the previous reporting period. The government did not proactively enforce a prohibition on the withholding of workers’ passports by employers, which remained a widespread problem. In 2014, it investigated the UAE Ambassador to Ireland for his alleged exploitation of three Filipino women in domestic service. The Irish Employment Appeals Tribunal awarded each of the three victims 80,000 euros ($97,300); however, it remained unclear whether the UAE government would attempt to prosecute or otherwise take action against or penalize this official.

The government continued to train judicial, law enforcement, and labor officials on human trafficking in 2014. In addition, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and MOL conducted several specialized training sessions on anti-trafficking for their staff during the reporting period.

PROTECTION

The government sustained uneven progress in identifying and providing protective services to trafficking victims. Though the government continued to proactively identify and protect trafficking victims, the government limited its protection services—including its shelters—solely to sex trafficking victims and failed to sufficiently address the needs of forced labor victims. During the reporting period, the government identified and referred to protective services 20 sex trafficking victims. This is a continued decrease from the 40 sex trafficking victims identified in 2013 and 57 in 2012. The government continued to fund shelters for female and child victims of sex trafficking and abuse in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras al Khaimah, and Sharjah; these shelters provided medical, psychological, legal, educational, and vocational assistance. A government-supported NGO operated a shelter for male sex trafficking victims; however, it was unclear whether any victims benefited from its services during the reporting period. The country remained without a shelter for male forced labor victims. A government-supported NGO provided assistance to 17 trafficking victims in its three shelters for women, and another organization sheltered three victims during the reporting period. Government officials reportedly continued to improve their efforts to identify and refer sex trafficking victims for care during the reporting period. Furthermore, the MOI and the government-funded shelters continued to implement their memorandum of understanding, which ensured police were responsible for referring and escorting victims safely to shelters.

In January 2015, the government promulgated an amendment to Federal Law 51 of 2006 on the protection of trafficking victims, including provisions to ensure victims are not penalized for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, depending on the nature of the case. Prior to the amendment’s passage, unidentified victims of sex trafficking and forced labor may have been penalized through incarceration, fines, or deportation for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, such as prostitution or immigration violations. For example, in some cases UAE authorities deemed female domestic workers who fled their employers as criminals, raising concerns victim identification procedures were not utilized in these cases. Additionally, forced labor victims who escaped debt bondage or exploitative labor situations faced the risk of being charged with absconding or immigration violation charges. The amendment prevents such occurrences and government officials reported charges for immigration violation, for example, were waived in certain circumstances. Although the MOI continued to distribute a guidebook outlining standard operating procedures for law enforcement officials to identify victims of both sex and labor trafficking, authorities failed to identify potential cases of forced labor, and instead classified them as labor violations. Some domestic workers, including victims of abuse by their employers, continued to seek shelter assistance at their embassies and consulates, in part due to a lack of government shelters for forced labor victims. The MOI continued to implement a system to place suspected trafficking victims in a transitional social support center, instead of a detention center, until victim identification was completed. A draft law protecting the rights of domestic workers, which the cabinet approved in January 2012, remained awaiting presidential approval.

In 2014, the trafficking victims’ fund established in the previous year became operational, as victims started receiving monetary assistance, particularly for housing, children’s education, and medical expenses in their home countries. The number of victims who benefited from this fund in 2014 was unreported. While the government exempted trafficking victims who had an ongoing court case against an employer for labor abuses from paying fines accrued for overstaying their visas, the government did not offer trafficking victims shelter, counseling, or immigration relief. The government did not provide permanent residency status to victims; however, the government worked with international organizations to resettle victims, at least two of whom were sex trafficking victims, who could not return to their home countries. It did not report repatriation assistance provided to victims during the reporting period. Workers whose employer did not pay them for 60 days—some of whom may be forced labor victims—were entitled to stay in the country and search for a new employer. The government continued to assist foreign workers who faced abuse and exploitation through its Human Rights Office in Dubai International Airport.

PREVENTION

The government maintained trafficking prevention efforts, including efforts to involve the private sector in combating trafficking. It continued to carry out its 2012 national action plan to address human trafficking. The government implemented awareness campaigns and publicized the government’s anti-trafficking hotline—operated by the inter-ministerial National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT). In September 2014, a government-supported NGO held a charity event in Abu Dhabi for the purpose of raising awareness on trafficking, raising the equivalent of $36,000. In December 2014, the Dubai police, the NCCHT, and MOL held an anti-trafficking conference focused on exploitative labor practices, including recruitment fees and subsequent debt bondage; most conference participants were heads of labor recruitment agencies and Dubai police. In 2014, Dubai police distributed 11,000 pamphlets in the predominant languages spoken by migrant laborers to all labor accommodation camps in Dubai. The MOL participated in the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, an inter-regional forum on labor migration involving Asian and Gulf countries. In June 2014, the government instituted a new standard contract required for all domestic employees and employers, to ensure transparency and provide legal protections to domestic workers who remained uncovered by the labor law; the contract specified worker and employer rights and responsibilities. In 2014, the government reported 263,944 total inspections to monitor labor law implementation. The MOL reported inspectors visiting 77,552 facilities, having conducted 105,421 field visits to ensure compliance with a ban on midday work from 12:30-3:00 p.m. between June 15 and September 15. Additionally, 27,752 visits were conducted for the purpose of raising awareness in these facilities; only 147 were found in violation. MOL did not report any forced labor cases resulting from these efforts. The government sustained its WPS electronic salary-monitoring system intended to ensure workers received their salaries. The government provided anti-trafficking training or guidance for its diplomatic personnel. The government did not take measures to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts in the UAE.