[ Country-by-Country Reports ]

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (TIER 2 Watch List)   [Extracted from U.S. State Dept TIP Report, June 2009]

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a destination for men and women, predominantly from South and Southeast Asia, trafficked for the purposes of labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Migrant workers, who comprise more than 90 percent of the UAE’s private sector workforce, are recruited from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, and the Philippines. Women from some of these countries travel willingly to work as domestic servants or administrative staff, but some are subjected to conditions indicative of forced labor, including unlawful withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, non-payment of wages, threats, or physical or sexual abuse. Trafficking of domestic workers is facilitated by the fact that the normal protections provided to workers under UAE labor law do not apply to domestic workers, leaving them more vulnerable to abuse. Similarly, men from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are drawn to the UAE for work in the construction sector, but are often subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude and debt bondage – often by exploitative “agents” in the sending countries – as they struggle to pay off debts for recruitment fees that sometimes exceed the equivalent of two years’ wages. Some women from Eastern Europe, South East Asia, the Far East, East Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco reportedly are trafficked to the UAE for commercial sexual exploitation. Some foreign women also are reportedly recruited for work as secretaries or hotel workers by third-country recruiters and coerced into prostitution or domestic servitude after arriving in the UAE.

The vulnerability of some migrant workers to trafficking likely increased towards the end of the reporting period as a global economic decline – noted particularly in the construction sector, the UAE’s largest single employer of foreign workers – saw many laborers repatriated to their home countries where they still owed debts. Unpaid construction workers often were defrauded or forced to continue working without pay, as they faced threats that protests may destroy any chance of recovering wages owed to them. By the unique nature of their work in homes, domestic workers were generally isolated from the outside world making it difficult for them to access help. Restrictive sponsorship laws for foreign domestic workers often gave employers power to control their movements and left some of them vulnerable to exploitation.

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, and increasingly public, efforts to do so. Although the government demonstrated sustained efforts to prosecute and convict sex trafficking offenders during the year and made modest progress to provide protections to female trafficking victims, there were no discernable anti-trafficking efforts against the forced labor of temporary migrant workers and domestic servants. The UAE historically has not recognized people forced into labor as trafficking victims, particularly if they are over the age of 18 and entered the country voluntarily; therefore, the United Arab Emirates is placed on Tier 2 Watch List.

Recommendations for the UAE: Increase efforts to investigate and prosecute human trafficking offenses, particularly those involving labor exploitation, and convict and punish trafficking offenders, including recruitment agents (both locals and non-citizens) and employers who subject others to forced labor; develop and institute formal procedures for law enforcement and Ministry of Labor officials to proactively identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable groups such as workers subjected to labor abuses, those apprehended for violations of immigration laws, domestic workers who have fled their employers, and foreign females in prostitution; improve protection services for victims of sex trafficking and forced labor, including adequate and accessible shelter space, referral to available legal aid, and credible recourse for obtaining financial restitution; consider sustaining and expanding the pilot program involving recruitment of foreign laborers in key source countries in order to eliminate recruitment fraud and other contributing factors to debt bondage and forced labor; ensure trafficking victims are not incarcerated, fined, or otherwise penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked; consider conducting interviews of potential trafficking victims in safe and non-threatening environments with trained counselors (preferably conversant in the victims’ language); collaborate with sending countries of laborers and domestic workers on investigations of recruiting agencies that engage in trafficking; and work proactively with NGOs to provide services for victims and educate both employers and workers on the practices that constitute human trafficking, and how to prevent them.

The UAE government made uneven progress in its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts over the last year. The prosecutions of 20 sex trafficking cases were initiated in UAE courts – and six of these resulted in convictions during the year, with sentences imposed of three years’ to life imprisonment. The government did not prosecute, convict, or punish any labor trafficking offenders. It did, however, impose fines on companies that violated labor laws, though such administrative responses are inadequate for labor trafficking crimes. The UAE prohibits all forms of trafficking under its federal law Number 51 of 2006, which prescribes penalties ranging from one year’s imprisonment to life imprisonment. These penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other grave crimes, such as rape. Although this comprehensive law emphasizes labor trafficking offenses, it has not yet been used to prosecute a labor trafficking offense – a major gap in the UAE’s anti-trafficking efforts. When victims of potential labor trafficking were identified by law enforcement authorities, criminal investigations were not initiated; instead the cases were often referred to the Ministry of Labor (MOL) to file an administrative complaint. In collaboration with IOM, the government provided anti-trafficking training to law enforcement personnel in Dubai and Abu Dhabi during the reporting period.

During the year, a member of a UAE ruling family and six of her traveling party were charged by a Belgian court for subjecting at least 17 Asian and Middle Eastern girls into forced labor as domestic servants.

The UAE government showed modest but uneven progress in its efforts to provide victims of trafficking with assistance. The government continued operation of a Dubai shelter largely for female victims of trafficking and abuse and opened a second shelter for female trafficking victims in Abu Dhabi in February 2009; the Dubai shelter reported assisting 43 trafficking victims since its September 2007 opening and the Abu Dhabi shelter provided assistance to 35 trafficking victims since its opening. Administration of the Dubai shelter, however, included several practices harmful to victims’ welfare, including detention of victims that the police wanted to hold for use as prosecution witnesses, an overly restrictive intake process that prohibited assistance to victims who did not have appropriate immigration status, and tight restrictions on victims’ movements and access to persons outside the shelter. Moreover, Dubai police do not consistently ensure that women who enter the UAE voluntarily to engage in prostitution but later become victims of sex trafficking are not penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of their being trafficked. When the police identify women in prostitution as trafficking victims, however, the victims are encouraged to participate in investigations and prosecutions of their traffickers. Victims who agree to testify against their traffickers are provided shelter by the government, and sometimes the option of temporary work.

Potential victims of labor trafficking – likely the most prevalent form of trafficking in the UAE – were not offered shelter or counseling or immigration relief by the government during the reporting period. The government regularly referred potential victims, who had been working in the formal sector, to the MOL to file complaints through administrative labor resolution channels; this did not apply to domestic workers. Unlike other laborers, domestic workers were not covered by UAE’s labor law and had little recourse to protection from abuse. This administrative remedy is not a sufficient deterrent to the serious crime of trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation. Several unofficial shelters were in operation, and supported hundreds of female domestic workers who fled their employers – termed “runaways” in the UAE – and who reported conditions of forced labor at the hands of their employers. The UAE government, however, did not initiate any reported investigations or prosecutions of forced labor offenses associated with these victims. Together with the Government of Mauritania, the UAE government closed the cases of 560 Mauritanian children who had been trafficked to the UAE as camel jockeys in previous years, and had been removed from their exploitation and repatriated; the UAE government continued funding a UNICEF program that provides rehabilitation assistance to these and other repatriated child camel jockeys from Sudan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Police and immigration officials in Abu Dhabi and Dubai received training on identification and appropriate care of trafficking victims during the year.

The UAE government made continued efforts to prevent human trafficking over the reporting period. Coordination of all government anti-trafficking efforts continued through the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, chaired by a coordinator who is currently the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. The The MOL continued to implement a policy designed in part to prevent non-payment of salaries, and possibly debt bondage, by requiring employers of foreign workers to pay salaries through an electronic system that could be monitored. The MOL also embarked on a potentially path-breaking pilot initiative with the labor sending governments of the Philippines and India to improve the transparency and accountability of labor recruitment from these countries and eliminate fraudulent recruitment practices that have in the past fostered forced labor and debt bondage; the initiative has yet to be fully implemented. In January 2009, the government launched an awareness-raising campaign in UAE airports. During the reporting period, the government and many companies in the UAE embarked on a model labor camp initiative to improve the accommodations of the country’s largely unskilled male foreign workforce. Currently standards for accommodation differ across the UAE's seven emirates, but the MoL has begun consultations with the ILO to develop federal standards of accommodation, health, and safety for the country’s guest workers, which are likely to prevent conditions that contribute to forced labor.