On 28 June 2018, the United States (US) Department of State released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for 2018, improving Bahrain’s ranking despite persistent concerns over the efficacy of sponsorship reforms as well as broader human rights abuses. It is particularly concerning that the State Department labeled the head of Bahrain’s Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) a “TIP Hero” while the authorities continue to commit serious labor rights violations and even imprisoned a former LMRA employee over peaceful criticism just days before.  Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes all good faith efforts to curb human trafficking and is glad to see the US encouraging reforms in Bahrain, but it is deeply inappropriate and counterproductive to praise these nominal efforts as “heroic” during the kingdom’s worst human rights clampdown in years. We especially condemn this approbation amid the US Embassy’s continued refusal to raise parallel rights concerns or to promote broader political and human rights reforms.

This year’s TIP Report moved Bahrain from Tier 2 to Tier 1 status, indicating that the government “fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” according to the State Department. Chiefly, in July 2017, the LMRA implemented a pilot program for “flexible work permits,” that is meant to allow self-sponsorship for some migrant workers, remedying many of the problems of the kafala sponsorship system. The State Department report finds that the program “allows up to 2,000 expatriates to apply every month to reside and work in Bahrain without needing a sponsor, after which successful applicants can work any job with any employer on a full-or part-time basis, negotiate wages and working hours directly, and secure multiple jobs concurrently with varying employers.” The report also found that the LMRA expanded protections for domestic workers and provided care for over 30 victims of trafficking, while the authorities convicted a Bahraini national and a government official for involvement with human trafficking offenses for the first time. The State Department also identified a number of necessary policy reforms that have yet to be implemented, calling on Bahrain to increase efforts in investigation and prosecution of traffickers, specifically in regards to forced labor and the withholding of both passports and wages from migrant workers. It also recommends Bahrain increase protections for migrant and domestic worker populations, and that it complete implementation of a formalized process for tracking and reporting human trafficking crimes.

The TIP Report notes that Bahrain has continuously failed to adopt labor laws that apply to domestic workers – despite repeated recommendations through the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process as well – and that the flexible work permits do not actually represent a full abolition of the sponsorship system, contradicting past government claims to the contrary. However, the State Department’s new designation for Bahrain neglects many of the kingdom’s wider human rights issues as well as the negative impact that the political crackdown has on efforts to combat human trafficking.

First, it is unclear if the flexible permits are effectively mitigating the most exploitative aspects of the kafala system in practice, as wage withholding and passport confiscation remain common for migrant workers. Many Bangladeshi and Indian workers, for example, face continued abuse and dozens protested unpaid wages just weeks before the release of this year’s TIP Report. These communities have been subjected to longstanding exploitation under Bahrain’s migrant labor system, and it has persisted throughout the State Department’s reporting period, with hundreds of workers protesting in March 2017 and June 2017 as well.  During the most recent protest on 11 June 2018, Indian and Bangladeshi workers attempted to march to Bahrain’s Labor Court after having been denied wages for over four months, and were ultimately dispersed by police. According to reports by Migrant Rights, these workers recounted stories of employees who were never paid salaries, provided a renewed visa, or returned their passports from the construction company. Though Bahrain’s Assistant Undersecretary for Labor Affairs Dr. Mohammed Ali Al Ansari has stated that the authorities are proceeding with investigations, impunity for labor violations remains a significant problem. While the 2018 TIP Report noted the closing of three recruitment agencies for disregarding labor laws in 2017 and the employment of 70 inspectors to investigate employment violations, migrant workers continue to face difficulty achieving justice in labor courts. Some have reported filing court cases only to have a continuous pending trial due to the employer’s refusal to attend.

More broadly, Bahrain’s overall human rights situation markedly deteriorated over the course of 2017, with the government imprisoning human rights defenders, dissolving all major opposition groups, and closing the last independent newspaper, among other severe violations of fundamental freedoms. The government’s all-out suppression of criticism and dissent directly undermines civil society’s ability to independently monitor and track human trafficking and related abuses, raising further concerns about the veracity of government claims accepted by State Department in the TIP Report. In July 2017, for example, Bahrain sentenced Nabeel Rajab, the kingdom’s leading human rights defender and a longtime advocate for expanded migrant protections, to two years in prison for giving media interviews; he was later sentenced to an additional five years for tweets. Likewise, the government shut down the only independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, virtually eliminating independent press capable of conducting investigations into migrant rights violations and human trafficking. Ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections, the authorities have also dissolved every major opposition group and banned their members from running, further ensuring that parliament is unable to fulfill its oversight role.

Bahrain maintains severe restrictions on the right to free association, including labor organizing, and individuals face employment discrimination based on their perceived political views or sectarian affiliation in both the private and public sector. Seven years on, the government has still failed to fully meet its obligations under repeated International Labor Organization (ILO) agreements to reinstate and compensate workers wrongfully dismissed during the crackdown on the 2011 pro-democracy movement. It has even targeted members of the LMRA – now recipient of the TIP Hero Award – with arbitrary detention and torture for expressing criticism of the government: in July 2016, authorities arrested LMRA official Ali Abdulraheem for allegedly participating in a peaceful sit-in at Diraz, and just last month the courts sentenced former LMRA employee Najah Ahmed Yousif to three years in prison for alleged social media posts. Yousif was tortured and sexually assaulted by the National Security Agency (NSA), Bahrain’s secret police, prior to her conviction.

“Any efforts to address the scourge of human trafficking and migrant labor exploitation in the Gulf are encouraged, but it is absolutely absurd for the State Department to call Bahrain a  ‘TIP hero’ while it’s virtually dismantling civil society, crushing dissent, and violating international labor standards,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “To present this award to the LMRA chief the same month one of his former employees was jailed for criticizing the government – after being tortured – is a remarkably tone-deaf move, even for the Trump Administration. The State Department is insulting Bahrain’s real heroes – the activists languishing in prison because they promoted universal human rights protections – and helping the government distract from its worsening repression.”

ADHRB calls on Bahrain to implement all of the TIP Report’s further reform recommendations, but we urge the State Department to strongly reconsider the Tier 1 and “TIP Hero” designations for the kingdom amid the overall rights crisis. The TIP Report does not comprehensively assess how the wider deterioration of human rights protections in Bahrain – in addition to the general persistence of labor abuses – undermines nominal reforms to combat human trafficking. Concomitantly, the enduring culture of impunity for government officials and the lack of independent accountability mechanisms impede objective assessments of the practical impact of technical improvements, like the flexible permits system.