New Technologies Aim to Combat Human Trafficking

Within the last few weeks, attempts to combat human trafficking and migrant abuse in the Arab Gulf states through technological means have made headlines. Pakistan recently announced it would begin issuing new biometric passports in 2017. A collection of organizations released a beta version of a new mobile app titled Shuvayatra last month in order to guide Nepali workers through acclimating to their new jobs in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Pakistan will start issuing new passports beginning in 2017. These new passports will be equipped with biometric chips. The microchips will store the holder’s biodata, which will aid authorities in detecting and preventing passport fraud. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan formally approved the project. He asserted that the government, “will ensure the menace of human trafficking from Pakistani soil [is eliminated] with the introduction of e-passports, a new digital document for international travellers in future.”

An official from Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) speaking anonymously said more than 1,000 trafficking networks are operating in the country. Deportations due to forged passports and suspected trafficking from Oman are on the rise; Oman is a transit country for many migrants and traffickers to enter into the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 2013, almost 1 million migrants from Pakistan worked and resided in the UAE. Pakistani migrants also make up a large percentage of the workforce in Saudi Arabia. Many of these migrants are victims of human trafficking and subjected to subsequent labor abuses in the GCC.

The Asia Foundation, the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), and Young Innovations launched the beta version of the Shuvayatra app in late May. It is estimated that over 1,500 Nepali workers leave the country each day for employment opportunities abroad. More than 3.5 million Nepalese work and live outside of Nepal, mostly in the Arab Gulf and East Asia. Government labor agencies and service providers are mostly concentrated in Kathmandu, while many workers come from villages and smaller cities. Shuvayatra was designed to fill in this information gap and reach as many migrants and potential migrants as possible.

The app aims to teach migrants about their labor rights, the working conditions in specific countries, and the work permit and application processes. It also offers specific information regarding women’s rights. While the app is meant to be applicable to Nepali migrants in any country abroad, there are specific sections regarding Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These sections include local, cultural do and don’ts and are specified due to the large amount of migrants and their history of abuse in those countries.

The states where much of the trafficking and abuse occur are not among the groups at the forefront of using technology to combat human trafficking. Qatar has flagged that new labor laws would enact and ensure regular and automated payments. The government also announced it would replace the kafala system of sponsorship-based employment with a new automated service through the Ministry of Interior. Qatari officials have set no deadline for the implementation of either proposal.

The UAE took steps to integrate technology into its approach to human trafficking by requiring companies to set up automated payments to their workers to ensure they got paid. However, thousands of workers still complain of withheld wages and this system only works if laborers are brought to the country legally and have proper work permits. Victims of human trafficking usually do not meet these criteria.

These steps taken by source countries and independent civil society organizations are indicative of the GCC countries’ inability to disseminate information about or protect migrant rights. The proposed steps that states such as Qatar and the UAE are taking to counter human trafficking are insufficient and lack concrete implementation. New advancements in technology, like issuing biometric passports and creating mobile apps accessible anywhere, aim to have a more immediate effect on the daily lives of those at risk of being trafficked. GCC states have the same technology at their disposal, and should ensure the technology they employ has a meaningful impact in the lives of the workers it aims to empower.

Brittany Hamzy is an Advocacy Fellow at ADHRB.