Human Trafficking:

Further Steps Needed to
Protect Migrant Workers

On 16 June 2009, the US Department of State published its 2009 annual report on ‘Trafficking in Persons’ throughout the world. The report placed Bahrain on ‘Tier 2 Watch List’ regarding trafficking in persons for being “a destination country for men and women trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation”. The report criticized the Government of Bahrain for “not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking”. The report identified nationals of 20 countries who migrate to Bahrain either voluntarily, to work as formal sector laborers or domestic workers, or being trafficked to Bahrain for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. The report has also criticized the confiscation of workers’ passports thereby placing migrant workers under employers’ mercy. Additionally, the report criticized the government for not prosecuting “any employers or labor agents for forced labor of migrant laborers, including domestic workers, under its new anti-trafficking law.”

The report has called for the protection of migrant workers, particularly domestic workers who cannot change their employers. In June 2009, the government abolished the ‘sponsor’ system and replaced it by a new regime that allows workers to change employers. This privilege has not extended to domestic workers. “As a result, potential trafficking victims may have been charged with employment or immigration violations, detained, and deported without adequate protection. Most migrant workers who were able to flee their abusive employers were frequently charged as “runaways,” sentenced to two weeks’ detention, and deported”, said the report. The report has also criticised the legal system for being perceived as ‘bias’ against migrant workers, which discourages workers from taking criminal proceedings against their traffickers.

The report alluded to the government’s, and other parties’, preventive measures to tackle the problem including producing a brochure describing Bahrain’s anti-trafficking law and soliciting complaints to its hotline for investigations; producing a pamphlet explaining how to legally obtain a work visa, workers’ rights, and how to report violations; organizing press conferences to highlight illegal practices, particularly withholding of passports, relating to human trafficking.

The report recommended a number of preventive and protective measures for Bahrain:

To increase the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenses and conviction and punishment of trafficking offenders;

To institute and apply formal procedures to identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers who have fled from abusive employers and prostituted women, and refer identified victims to protective services;

To ensure that victims of trafficking are not punished for acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, such as illegal migration or prostitution.

The report was widely covered in the Bahraini media. On 21 June, Abdulah al-Merza of al-Wasat daily newspaper criticized the government for not officially responding to the report. He called for having a realistic look at the report since it came from a major and friendly state.

On the other hand, al-Sheikh Adel al-Mowa’ouda, chair of the Parliamentary Committee on External Affairs and Defense and National Security, pointed to the minimum impact of the report at the national level. By contrast, Abdulah Al Darazi, Secretary-General of Bahrain Human Rights Organization, while acknowledging progress made in combating human trafficking, has called for the establishment of a fund for the protection of victims of human trafficking (al-Wasat newspaper, 21 June 09).

Ms. Marietta Dias, spokesperson of Migrant Workers Protection Society, stated that the conditions of migrant workers in Bahrain need to be improved in order to improve the workers’ working situation (al-Wasat, 19 June 09).

It is worth to mention that Bahrain has adopted in 2008 an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, which provides for a maximum of 15 years’ imprisonment in case of conviction. Bahraini Ministry of Interior has established a ‘Human Trafficking Unit’ in its efforts to combat trafficking in persons. Furthermore, Bahrain hosted an international conference in March 2009 aiming at combating trafficking in persons, finding solution to the problem, and strengthening regional and international cooperation against trafficking (see March 2009 Bahrain Monitor Newsletter).

Abdulah Al Darazi has called for the implementation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act on the ground as the Act was applied in only one case since its adoption. He has also emphasized the need to train prosecutors and judges on how to apply and interpret the Act provisions in a way that protect victims of human trafficking.

As a final remark, a month before the US State Department released its report, and more precisely on 13 May 2009, The Assistant of Undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Shaikh Abdul Aziz Bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa had identified the problem as an international one. Addressing the United Nations Thematic Dialogue in New York, he called for collective action to end human trafficking. “[It] is clear that trafficking cannot be tackled unilaterally. International cooperation is essential, and can be effective at a number of levels”, he said. He also drew a vision to tackle the problem by saying: “We must work in destination countries to improve detection, enforcement and victim protection, as well as to raise awareness among both public and business of the suffering caused by trafficking, and to show that any business reasons for employing apparently cheap, trafficked labour are nothing more than false economies built on the inhumane exploitation of the weak.”