Human trafficking is a particularly taboo subject in the Middle East. Many experts have recommended that acknowledging the problem is the first step towards solving it. Bahrain recently hosted the “Human Trafficking at the Crossroads” conference in order address this long-standing taboo topic.

During the conference, held the first week of March 2009, the first ladies of Egypt and Bahrain encouraged a greater role for the private sector in adopting a zero-tolerance approach to trafficking. Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ebrahim Al Khalifa, the first lady of Bahrain, called upon a partnership between private and public sectors to sever the supply-demand chain of human trafficking. Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain stressed the need for the elimination of the sponsorship system in order to protect workers. The sponsorship system means that foreign workers need a sponsor’s permission to enter, work, and leave the host country.

The U.A.E. is a regional leader with its campaign to eliminate human trafficking. More prosecutors were added to the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, shelters have been opened for victims of trafficking and authorities are strongly encouraged to enforce the 2006 law prohibiting trafficking in the country.

The International Organization for Migration (I.O.M.) facilitated a two-day training workshop with U.A.E. law enforcement officials in at the Dubai Police Academy in late February, 2009, focusing on techniques for interviewing potential trafficking victims. In early March, 2009, Dubai police enforced the anti-trafficking law by arresting a gangaccused of luring Eastern European women to Dubai with phony job offers and then forcing them into prostitution.

In spite of these anti-trafficking campaigns, the majority of Middle Eastern countries have not yet ratified the 2000 U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. Many countries in the region, however, have national laws in place to prohibit human trafficking. The most recent Middle Eastern country to adopt a law against trafficking was Jordan in late January, 2009. This new legislation was in response to international complaints that Jordanian companies were sending foreign workers to Iraq against their will.

Nevertheless, even where anti-trafficking laws are in place, many countries in the region such as Qatar, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon punish trafficking victims for acts, including immigration violations, which are direct results of being trafficked. In addition, Iran and Saudi Arabia do not interview women arrested for prostitution for evidence of trafficking. These women are often punished for violations of morality standards such as adultery (defined as sexual relations outside of marriage) and are subject to corporal punishment.

An initiative to work towards an Arab Convention against human trafficking is planned for the 2009 Arab League meeting in Saudi Arabia.

Written by Claire R. Thomas