Gulf States Remain Areas of Deep Concern on World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

30 July 2018 – Five years ago, the United Nations Member States convened to adopt resolution A/RES/68/192, a resolution that officially designated 30 July as World Day Against Trafficking in Persons as a day to bring both awareness to human trafficking and promote the rights of trafficking victims. As the world recognizes this 30 July, we at Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) highlight the trends in human trafficking that persist in the Gulf region and in nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). ADHRB reiterates that Bahrain’s designation as a Tier 1 country in the 2018 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report is deeply inappropriate, and expresses grave concern over the wider abuses of migrant laborers under the kafala system and the lack of meaningful reform to prevent human trafficking.

The GCC states, despite nominal “reforms” in a few select countries, continue to implement the sponsorship system more commonly known as kafala, whose most exploitative aspects include wage withholding and passport confiscation. The abusive tenets of the sponsorship system directly contribute to human trafficking and has resulted in pervasive forced labor throughout the Gulf. The GCC nations are all designated destinations of human trafficking. Notably, migrant laborers trafficked into the Gulf region hail heavily from South and Southeast Asia, all regions of the African continent, and, in some cases, from within the Middle East. Heavy representation from India, Bangladesh, and Nepal is especially evident in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman, while reporting for Saudi Arabia and the UAE indicate a more generalized, broad array of origins. Upon arrival, these groups face various forms of exploitation under kafala, regardless of ultimate destination.

Reports from the Department of State, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) all indicate serious violations of workers’ rights for these migrant populations under the sponsorship system, implemented in different capacities. Bahrain, touted now as a Tier 1 country, began implementing a limited flexible work permit system in an attempt to fight the effects of kafala and, according to the government, abolish it. However, the reality contrasts starkly. Bahrain has seen continued practices of wage withholding and passport confiscation, with Bangladeshi and Indian workers protesting these practices during the TIP Report reporting period in March 2017 and June 2017. Despite its upgraded ranking with the State Department, the recently released CCPR review has also told quite a different tale – the report highlights abuse against migrant workers, specifically wage withholding and “lack of effective remedies against such abuses,” further calling for full reparations for victims, as well as the persecution of perpetrators an improved monitoring and identification systems.

Because migrant workers’ rights violations are consistently addressed as labor law violations rather than human trafficking crimes, the result is typically a lack of routine monitoring of forced labor in Bahrain. Similar trends occur in Oman and Qatar, where the governments investigate clear indicators of labor abuses as labor law violations rather than routinely monitored human trafficking violations. Oman, in particular, has an added national dimension to its implementation of the sponsorship system.  “Omanization,” a set of labor policies prioritizing the employment of Omani citizens, decreased the number of migrants employed in the nation, but violations of migrant workers’ rights persisted nonetheless. Workers still reported continued wage withholding, passport retention and denial of food by their employers. Qatar, on the other hand, has signed on to human rights treaties to reform kafala. Lack of investigation of labor abuses of migrant workers as human trafficking crimes, however, are not the only cause for skepticism in Qatar’s proclaimed reform to human trafficking. Qatar, under intensified scrutiny with the 2022 World Cup, continues to foster dangerous working environments and unlivable conditions for its migrant workers in addition to the typical withholding of wages and passport retention by employers. Still, Qatar places limits on migrant workers’ right to organize even after signing the ICESCR. The UAE, as well, has made hollow efforts in reforming kafala. The country passed Federal Law No.10 of 2017, which aimed to reduce work hours and provide paid leave, along with the right to retain personal documentations such as passports. Despite this, employers instead have resorted to accusing their employees nebulously of crimes or witchcraft. Should workers move to leave their employers, they may be persecuted for “absconding,” facing consequences that go as far as imprisonment and deportation. Oman and Bahrain, while appearing to make their own individual efforts, are still rife with conditions for the continuation of human trafficking and a noncommittal to serious reform.

Saudi Arabia has taken even more extreme stances on the sponsorship system, cracking down on migrant workers by arresting, detaining, and deporting them. Officials did prosecute four Saudis for withholding passports from migrant workers, but the continued aggressive attack on migrant laborers vulnerable to kafala’s exploitation and required exit visas indicates migrant workers’ rights violations are only set to continue. Strict exit permit laws and the common practice of wage withholding and passport retention in Saudi Arabia put migrant workers at further risk of the increased deportation efforts. In Kuwait, migrants face similar trends. Legal residency is intertwined with the employer, with workers facing abuse from their employers and violation to their rights to freedom of movement. Kuwait has faced pushback from countries it sources domestic labor from, with many banning their women from traveling to the Gulf state, but rather than reform has switched its focus to recruiting for its largest migrant labor sector from Africa.

“The trends we are seeing in the Gulf region are deeply concerning, as we see continued and intense exploitation under kafala,” says ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “What is even more outrageous is the lack of accountability for the Gulf States by the international community. The GCC countries do not even enforce attempted reforms to the sponsorship system, which has contributed heavily to human trafficking in the region. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, designated Tier 2 Watchlist by the State Department, have only written plans to end address human trafficking but little to no action. Even Bahrain’s Tier 1 ranking is dumbfounding, given that forced labor is still prevalent. On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, it is vital that the international community gets tough on the Gulf States to take serious steps to end human trafficking.”

Human trafficking trends in the Gulf remain a huge point of concern in the international human rights movement. The continued implementation of the kafala sponsorship system openly exploits migrant laborers, inhibiting their freedom of movement and, in many cases, right to freedom of assembly. While some countries have tried to tout attempts to reform the sponsorship system, all have failed to completely abolish the sponsorship system, implement serious reforms, and sincerely cracked down on human trafficking. On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, ADHRB calls on the international community to speak out against the kafala system and to demand the Gulf States act swiftly and comprehensively to abolish sponsorship and engage in sincere efforts to end human trafficking.