Human Trafficking in the Middle East
Written by Steven Tibbitts
One of the most persistent threats facing the world in the 21st century is the rise of human trafficking as a major form of criminal exploitation. Not only is this issue found worldwide, it is also a growing problem in the Middle East, especially as it combines with the impact of conflict and the rising refugee streams trying to reach Europe.
Across the globe, approximately 40 million people are trapped in human trafficking (International Labour Organization and Walk Free Foundation 2017, 5). Human trafficking includes forced labor, forced sex trafficking, and forced organ donation (Harroff-Tavel and Nasri 2013, 20). The industry is a lucrative one, reaching at least $150 billion in profits yearly (International Labour Office 2014, 13). Although there is uncertainty and debate about exact numbers, it is believed that within the realm of human trafficking the most common form is forced sexual trafficking, though force labor is a major component as well (Asrar 2017; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 10; International Labour Organization and Walk Free Foundation 2017, 10). The majority of victims of human trafficking are women and young girls, and approximately 25% of victims are children (International Labour Organization and Walk Free Foundation 2017, 10; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 10).
Around 600,000 victims of human trafficking are present in the Middle East and represent around 45 nationalities (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 9; Harroff-Tavel and Nasri 2013, 13). Around 51% of the victims are from the Middle East itself (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 9). While the Middle East experiences less human trafficking than other regions, it is still a relevant factor in the stability and security of the region. Additionally, trafficking patterns differ within the region itself.
Labor trafficking is the most present form of human trafficking in the Middle East, largely as a result of low-skilled, foreign workers coming to the region for work (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 10; Harroff-Tavel and Nasri 2013, 15).
Much of the issue stems from law systems in the region, specifically kafala (sponsor) laws that allow foreign workers to enter a Middle Eastern country on the sponsorship of someone in that country (Harroff-Tavel and Nasri 2013, 13-15; Buchbinder 2015). Once inside the country, these individuals are vulnerable to sparse legal protection, abuse from sponsors, overworking, not receiving payment, and even enslavement or forcible entry into the sex trade (Harroff-Tavel and Nasri 2013, 13-15, 42-43, 67-68; Buchbinder 2015; Palet 2018). A frequent strategy of sponsors is to keep the worker’s passport so that they are essentially stranded (Harroff-Tavel and Nasri 2013, 42-43). The issue also in part derives from deception employed by sponsors and private companies that promote foreign work opportunities in the Middle East (Harroff-Tavel and Nasri 2013, 13-15; Buchbinder 2015; Pattison 2018). Moreover, in terms of sexual trafficking, victims may be fooled into coming to the country to obtain different employment and be forced into sex trafficking or be sold by families as underage brides which results in human trafficking (Harroff-Tavel and Nasri 2013, 67-68; Buchbinder 2015).
The Gulf countries play a large part in trafficking. Since they are wealthier, they are more attractive hubs for human trafficking (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 87; Buchbinder 2015; Lageman 2016).
Conflicts plays a major role in human trafficking in the region, with the Syrian conflict being particularly relevant. Conflict drives refugees to leave their countries for squalid camps where predators lurk, or to make their way to Europe, a journey fraught with risk from human traffickers. In Jordan, Syrian refugees have been subject to preying by organized crime groups working in human trafficking, with Syrians being the UN’s most detected victim nationality of human trafficking in the Middle East outside of the Gulf (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 87). Syrian women are forced into sex work at nightclubs or are sold by their desperately poor families as child brides into sham marriages that either end after one night or result in the girl being forced into trafficking (Harper 2014; O’Leary 2017; Van-Tets 2014). Human trafficking is also present within the Syrian crisis as ISIS exploited thousands of Yazidi girls as sex slaves to be sold across its territory (Cole 2019).
One difficult aspect of addressing human trafficking is its intersection with migrant flows, particularly in the context of the Middle East. Groups that smuggle migrants come in all shapes and sizes, though they tend to have ethnic connections either to the area they operate in or to the migrants they smuggle (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 5-10). Some have ties to larger organized crime networks (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 5-10). There are multiple established routes in the world that smugglers use to move individuals around, including several in the Middle East (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 10).
The danger arises in that these groups can easily abuse migrants and force them into labor or prostitution or put them at high risk of death from dangerous journeys on which thousands perish (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2018, 9). This is especially true with the thousands of immigrants trying to make it to Europe from the Middle East. Many of these immigrants, who hail from the Middle East and Africa, find themselves abused and exploited by traffickers, particularly in Libya (Bhalla 2018). Even making it to Europe is no guarantee of safety as the camps there are also vulnerable to trafficking (Euractiv and Thomsan Reuters Foundation 2018). Moreover, some immigrants get looped into dangerous activities to fund their trips, such as organ donation (Columb 2019).
Asrar, Shakeeb. 2017. “The cost of human trafficking.” Al-Jazeera, July 30. Accessed February 9, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/07/human-trafficking-170730102508536.html
Bhalla, Nita. 2018. “Africa’s trafficking gangs flourish as nations fail to work together.” Reuters, July 30. Accessed February 9, 2019.
Buchbinder, Sharon. 2015. “Sex, Lies and Crime: Human Trafficking in the Middle East.” Islamic Monthly, April 27. Accessed November 5, 2018.
Cole, Diane. 2019. “Human Trafficking Reaches ‘Horrific’ New Heights, Declares U.N. Report.” NPR, January 14. Accessed February 9, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/01/14/684414187/human-trafficking-reaches-horrific-new-heights-declares-u-n-report
Columb, Shawn. 2019. “Organ trafficking in Egypt: ‘They locked me in and took my kidney.’” Guardian, February 9. Accessed February 9, 2019.
Euractiv and Thomsan Reuters Foundation. 2018. “Human traffickers capitalise on ‘chaos’ at Europe’s migrant hotspots.” Euractiv and Reuters, January 31. Accessed February 9, 2019. https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/human-traffickers-capitalise-on-chaos-at-europes-migrant-hotspots/
Harper, Lee. 2014. “Syrian women in Jordan at risk of sexual exploitation at refugee camps.” Guardian, January 24. Accessed November 6, 2018.
Harroff-Tavel, Hélène and Alix Nasri. 2013. Tricked and Trafficked: Human Trafficking in the Middle East. Geneva: International Labour Organization.
International Labour Office. 2014. Profits and Poverty: The economics of forced labour. Geneva: International Labour Office.
International Labour Organization and Walk Free Foundation. 2017. Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage. Geneva: International Labour Office.
Lageman, Thessa. 2016. “Dubai in United Arab Emirates a centre of human trafficking and prostitution.” Sydney Morning Herald, January 20. Accessed December 2, 2018. https://www.smh.com.au/world/dubai-in-united-arab-emirates-an-epicentre-of-human-trafficking-and-prostitution-20160115-gm6mdl.html
O’Leary, Caroline. 2017. “Sex Trafficking and the Refugee Crisis: Exploiting the Vulnerable.” Council on Foreign Relations, May 8. Accessed November 5, 2018.
Palet, Laura Secorun. 2018. “Rising in the Middle East: Forced Labor From Africa.” Ozy, January 7. Accessed February 9, 2019. https://www.ozy.com/fast-forward/rising-in-the-middle-east-forced-labor-from-africa/82554
Pattison, Pete. 2018. “Migrants claim recruiters lured them into forced labour at top Qatar hotel.” Guardian, October 29. Accessed February 9, 2019.
Van-Tets, Fernando. 2014. “Easy prey: The sexual exploitation of Syria’s female refugees.” Independent, March 9. Accessed November 6, 2018.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2018. Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2018. Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants: Executive Summary. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.