The U.S. Department of State placed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Tier 2 of 3 in its 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report. Tier 2 indicates the UAE does not comply with all standards for combatting human trafficking but is working toward compliance. The government has much work ahead to combat trafficking for forced labor. However, it is making strides against sex trafficking through its National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT).
Labor and Human Trafficking in the United Arab Emirates
According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “about 90% of the UAE’s over-9-million-strong population consist[s] of foreign nationals” because the country relies heavily on migrant workers who primarily come from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The UAE uses the kafala system to manage its large migrant worker population.
Kafala began during the early twentieth century and expanded in the mid-1950s due to demand for labor as the Gulf countries made innovations in oil production technology. In the UAE, kafala allows private citizens to employ migrant workers. In turn, the employers agree to relinquish some of their political and social rights to the government. Kafala creates a significant power imbalance, favoring Emirati employers over migrant workers. As a result, migrant workers are at risk of falling prey to human trafficking and forced labor.
Labor trafficking is one of two major categories of human trafficking in the United Arab Emirates. The government made trafficking for forced labor and prostitution criminal offenses, punishable by fines, prison time with a maximum of life imprisonment and deportation for non-citizen perpetrators through Federal Law No. 51 of 2006. Even so, the enforcement of the law is weak for labor trafficking. Instead of investigating labor trafficking red flags as potential human trafficking indicators, the Emirati government treats signs of labor trafficking as labor issues and assigns lighter punishments to perpetrators.
The Fight Against Sex Trafficking in the United Arab Emirates
The other main category of human trafficking in the United Arab Emirates is sex trafficking. In response to sex trafficking, the country has been highly engaged in the fight against it. The NCCHT formed The ‘5 Ps’ Approach – Prevention, Prosecution, Punishment, Protection and Promotion – which has been a guiding force for responding to sex trafficking in the country.
Shelters supporting sex trafficking victims have published informational packets via social media. These packets inform at-risk groups about indicators for human trafficking situations. Additionally, the Federal Public Prosecution published an online brochure. This brochure explains the punishments for people who know of human trafficking activities but do not report them. Prevention-category actions improve the public’s ability to identify trafficking and its consequences.
Prosecution and Punishment
Federal Law No. 51 of 2006 criminalizes human trafficking in the United Arab Emirates. In 2020-2021, the UAE prosecuted 54 people in 19 sex trafficking cases and found 15 individuals guilty. Although the numbers are not objectively high, the UAE is a leader in North Africa and the Middle East in the number of trafficking convictions. Additionally, most sentences in the UAE included three or more years of prison time, fines and deportation for non-citizen offenders.
Nonprofit and government shelters play a massive role in protecting sex trafficking victims. The Emirati government, religious institutions, hospitals, other institutions and various trafficking hotlines in the country refer victims to shelters. Shelters provide housing, medical and legal services, therapy and education. They also provide victims who are minors with additional support. Support for minors includes separate sleeping arrangements and educational programming tailored to their age level. The shelters also offer continued care after the victim leaves.
After the establishment of the 2006 trafficking law, two major shelters, EWAA Shelter for Women and Children in the country’s capital of Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC), opened in 2008 and 2007, respectfully. In 2020-2021, the Emirati government referred 23 sex trafficking victims to shelters, and the Aman Center for Women and Children in Ras Al Khaimah supported 10 additional sex trafficking victims. There are multiple shelters across the UAE, but data collection and reporting on victims and shelters is limited.
The Emirati government runs a 24-hour trafficking hotline that promotes reporting of human trafficking cases by the public. DFWAC, the UAE’s Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation and the Ministry of Interior (MOI) also run trafficking hotlines. Additionally, the MOI operates a phone application where trafficking victims or witnesses can reach the police and submit trafficking reports.
In addition, the NCCHT, Dubai Police, MOI, Abu Dhabi Judicial Department and DFWAC have been running training programs and classes about implementing The ‘5 Ps’ Approach in the public safety and judicial sectors. During the NCCHT and Dubai Police’s “Human Trafficking Specialist” program in 2020, representatives from 30 police authorities in the UAE learned how to recognize human trafficking situations and support victims. The MOI’s nine anti-trafficking programs during 2020-2021 taught 918 police officers about how to approach trafficking situations, and the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department’s human trafficking classes reached 549 judges and public prosecutors during 2020-2021.
The government has made advances in the fight against human trafficking in the United Arab Emirates. The 2006 federal law criminalizing human trafficking provides an institutional start to combat labor trafficking and sex trafficking. The Emirati government’s commitment to combatting sex trafficking provides an inspiring example of how bold, concerted action can achieve human rights advances. The challenge lies in whether the government will further apply this mentality to labor trafficking.
– Anna Ryu