Once again, the US State Dept. issues its annual Trafficking in Persons report. Once again, Saudi Arabia finds itself listed as a ‘Tier 3′ country, defined as “A country whose government does not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” That, sadly, is the fact.
The Saudi government, the report notes, taken made tentative steps to address the issue. It has, for instance, issued a new anti-trafficking law (July, 2009), and engaged in a publicity campaign to alert Saudis to the problem. Whether those efforts will be effective, though, is yet to be determined.
This is a problem that needs to be addressed. Saudi media consistently reports on abuse of workers coming from less developed parts of the world. International media is quick to jump on the most egregious examples, when they become known. And, given the instance of Homaidan Al-Turki, it seems that at least some Saudis bring their contempt for Third World workers abroad with them. Allowing this to continue can only hurt Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabians in the eyes of the world.
You can view the entire report at this link.
The Saudi Arabia-specific section of the reports has this to say:
Saudi Arabia is a destination country for men and women subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced labor. Men and women from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and many other countries voluntarily travel to Saudi Arabia as domestic servants or other low-skilled laborers, but some subsequently face conditions indicative of involuntary servitude, including restrictions on movement and communication, the withholding of passports and other travel documents, threats, physical or sexual abuse, and non-payment of wages. In some cases, arriving migrant workers have found the terms of employment in Saudi Arabia are wholly different from those they agreed to in their home countries. The Indian government no longer permits its female nationals under age 40 to take jobs as domestic workers in Saudi homes due to the high incidence of physical abuse by employers. Women, primarily from Asian and African countries, were believed to have been forced into prostitution in Saudi Arabia; others were reportedly kidnapped and forced into prostitution after running away from abusive employers.
Yemeni, Nigerian, Pakistani, Afghan, Chadian, and Sudanese children were subjected to forced labor as beggars and street vendors in Saudi Arabia, facilitated by criminal gangs. Unconfirmed reports indicated fewer Yemeni children may have been forced to work in Saudi Arabia during the reporting period. A 2009 doctoral study submitted to Naif Arab University for Security Sciences concluded Jeddah may be a hub for an international child trafficking network exploiting the Hajj and Umrah visas (visas for religious pilgrimages to Mecca).
Some Saudi nationals travel to destinations including Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh to solicit prostitution. Some Saudi men used legally contracted “temporary marriages” in countries such as Mauritania, Yemen, and Indonesia as a means by which to sexually exploit migrant workers.
The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. In a positive development, the government enacted anti-trafficking legislation during the reporting period, and published a National Plan for Combating Trafficking in Persons. However, the new law did not provide criminal sanctions for the prohibited but still common practice of withholding passports and denying exit visas, and did not provide provisions for trafficking victims to remain in Saudi Arabia during investigations and court proceedings. There was no confirmation the government criminally prosecuted or punished trafficking offenders under the new or existing laws. Victim protection efforts in Saudi Arabia continued to be weak. Many Saudis, including some government officials, continued to deny certain kinds of trafficking occur, particularly cases involving sexual exploitation. Government officials also conflated trafficking with smuggling and the problem of religious pilgrims overstaying their visas to work illegally. The new National Plan of Action, however, acknowledges the conflation.
Recommendations for Saudi Arabia: Use the new criminal law to investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses and convict and punish trafficking offenders, including abusive employers and those culpable of trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation; either enforce laws prohibiting passport withholding and exit visa denial, or amend the law or create implementing regulations to criminally address these issues; amend the law or create implementing regulations to address the ability of victims to remain in the Kingdom during the investigation and court proceedings; fulfill the legally mandated responsibilities of the Permanent Committee, including instituting a formal victim identification mechanism to distinguish trafficking victims among the thousands of workers deported each year for immigration violations and other crimes; ensure trafficking victims in practice are able to pursue criminal cases against their employers; improve victim protection at the Riyadh shelter by transforming it into an open shelter where victims are not locked in; enforce labor laws and expand full labor protections to domestic workers; enforce the Council of Ministers decision criminalizing the withholding of passports; reform the structure of the sponsorship system to discourage sponsors from withholding workers’ passports and restricting workers’ movements; and continue and expand judicial training on recognizing cases of human trafficking.
The Government of Saudi Arabia made limited law enforcement efforts against human trafficking. In July 2009, Saudi Arabia issued an anti-trafficking law, “Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons Act,” promulgated by Royal Decree number M/40. The law became effective in October 2009, three months from the date of issue. The law defines and prohibits all forms of human trafficking, prescribing punishments of up to 15 years and/or fines up to approximately $266,667. Penalties may be increased under certain circumstances, including trafficking committed by an organized criminal group or committed against a woman, child, or person with special needs. These penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes. Since the law includes some concepts unrelated to human trafficking, the government must disaggregate law enforcement activity under this law to indicate which prosecutions and convictions are for trafficking. However, the law does not specifically note the common practice of withholding workers’ passports and exit visa denial present in most trafficking cases, and therefore, the actual cases prosecuted under the legislation may be limited. The law also does not secure the right of victims to remain in Saudi Arabia during the investigation and court proceedings, a circumstance that may further impede the chances of successful prosecutions and convictions.
The government did not conduct any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions under the new anti-trafficking law. Under Sharia law, the government reported at least eight convictions for pimping, exploiting a woman, sexual exploitation, and provision of premises for female prostitution, and one conviction for exploiting the rights of male and female workers. The sentences ranged from two months to four years and numerous lashes; it is uncertain whether any of these crimes constituted human trafficking. The Saudi government also prohibits the confiscation of foreign workers’ passports under a Council of Ministers decision, and the prescribed penalty for violators is a ban on recruiting other expatriate workers; however, this practice continued to be widespread. The structure of the sponsorship system, which holds sponsors responsible for the workers they employ, encourages sponsors to withhold workers’ passports and restrict workers’ movements. In addition, despite available administrative laws, the government did not regularly enforce prohibitions against employers or recruitment agents for abusing migrant workers. Since the new counter-trafficking law took effect, the Human Rights Commission held at least three seminars for small groups of judges to improve their capacity in recognizing cases of human trafficking.
Saudi Arabia made insufficient efforts to protect victims of human trafficking during the reporting period. Saudi Arabian law enforcement officials did not employ procedures for the identification of victims of trafficking among vulnerable populations, such as foreigners detained for immigration violations or women arrested for prostitution. The government operated a short-term shelter for female domestic workers in Riyadh, but victims of physical and psychological abuse were unlikely to receive assistance. Moreover, the shelter is closed; victims are not free to leave. The government did not operate any long-term shelters or facilities to house men. Many victims were simply sent to deportation centers, hospitals, or (if available) housing provided by charitable organizations. Many victims sought refuge at their embassies, negotiated settlements with their employers, and independently obtained funds to return home. During the reporting period, the Indonesian government, in partnership with IOM, sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to assess the plight of Indonesian domestic workers in the Kingdom. More than 150 Indonesians residing in the Indonesian embassy’s shelter and unable to leave because they either did not have passports or exit permits, or both — indications of possible forced labor — were flown home after the delegation intervened with the Saudi government.
Although Saudi Arabia offers temporary relief from deportation to some victims who identify themselves to authorities, those who have run away from their employers, overstayed their visas, or otherwise violated the legal terms of their visas were jailed without being offered protection. In particular, women are at a disadvantage. Women arrested for prostitution were not interviewed for evidence of trafficking, and may have been subjected to stringent corporal punishment under Saudi law. In previous years, women who were raped by their employers found themselves imprisoned or sentenced to lashes for the offense of moral criminality; it was uncertain if any such events occurred in the reporting period. Women who escaped from their employers were subject to police detention for improper dress if they were not wearing an abaya – a required outer garment – or for the offense of running away from their sponsor, who is legally responsible for employees for the duration of their stay. Police sometimes returned foreigners to their sponsors or employers, despite their vulnerability to additional abuse or reprisals. Law enforcement agents continue to send street children, often in begging rings, to jail, but this practice was in decline. Saudi officials instead send the children to juvenile detention centers, and then work with diplomatic missions to facilitate deportation of the children picked up in raids.
Few migrants successfully pursue criminal cases against abusive employers, including traffickers, as the Saudi government did not offer assistance with legal remedies. Migrants – including victims of trafficking – sometimes face severe delays in the immigration and justice system, and obstacles such as lack of access to interpreters, legal aid, or their consulates. The length of time to process cases against employers leads many foreign workers – including victims of trafficking – to drop both criminal and monetary claims, choosing instead to return to their home countries penniless in lieu of submitting to a legal process. Moreover, as foreign workers are required to obtain their sponsor’s formal permission or order to depart the Kingdom, many trafficking victims languished in shelters or detention centers awaiting these exit permits. Although the government reports providing legal services to victims, the lack of translation assistance and lengthy and costly delays often discourage victims.
Saudi officials did not encourage victims to assist in investigations against their traffickers, and often discourage cooperation by persuading victims to take monetary compensation in lieu of filing criminal charges against their employers or by returning to their employers. There is no mechanism in place under Saudi law for continuing such cases once the employee has departed Saudi Arabia. Reports indicated Saudi sponsors often prevailed by delaying hearings and approval to grant an exit visa, or refusing to pay penalties or transfer a sponsorship. Traffickers sometimes levied charges against victims, which are believed by police and judges, and officials force confessions from victims. The government did not offer legal alternatives to the removal of foreign trafficking victims to countries where they may face hardship or retribution.
The government has made some progress in preventing human trafficking. As part of a recently-launched, four-year human rights campaign, the Government of Saudi Arabia developed and posted billboards aimed to raise awareness on trafficking and domestic violence; broadcasted a program on government radio describing trafficking and the new anti-trafficking law; and raised awareness at the Janadriya annual cultural festival. As part of its new anti-trafficking law, the Saudi government created an inter-ministerial committee tasked with supervising implementation of the new law and coordinating anti-trafficking activities. The inter-ministerial committee met twice in 2009 and included members of the Ministries of Interior, Justice, Social Affairs, Labor, Culture and Information, and the Human Rights Commission. The Ministry of Labor produced a booklet in Arabic, English, and some source country languages on workers’ rights, employers’ responsibilities, and methods to seek help and assistance. The booklet was meant to be disseminated to foreign embassies in Riyadh, Saudi embassies abroad, ports of entry, and all foreign workers. However, these booklets were not produced in sufficient quantity and were not translated into a sufficient number of languages. The Ministry of Social Affairs had office hotlines to receive complaints and report crimes involving trafficking. However, complaints had to be submitted in written Arabic, and even those migrant workers who do speak Arabic are illiterate in the language. Reports indicated most workers also could not afford the transportation costs or time off to file a complaint in person, were afraid to complain, or were discouraged by the Ministry’s long bureaucratic delays and lack of enforcement. The Ministry of Labor reported it maintained a database of abusive employers who are prohibited from recruiting new foreign workers, but reports indicated the government did not implement the blacklisting system during the reporting period. The government published a report from the Human Rights Commission entitled “Endeavors of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Prevent and Suppress Trafficking in Persons.” In the reporting period, Saudi Arabia did not take actions to reduce the demand for prostitution. The Grand Mufti led a public awareness campaign through a series of sermons stressing the illegality of temporary marriage; this may reduce participation in international child sex tourism by Saudi nationals. The government funded and organized various anti-trafficking seminars and workshops, including a three-day trafficking seminar in December 2009, for Saudi and other government officials. The seminar, held at the Naif Arab University for Security Studies, was comprehensive and included case studies, legal review, prosecutorial methodology, and provided information on child sex tourism, victim interviews, and victim assistance.
I am aware that the US has its own problems in trafficking, I do not belittle those problems. I don’t think, however, that a good argument can be made that Saudi Arabia shouldn’t have to address its own problems until the US solves its problems. There are tens, hundreds of thousands of people, individual human beings, being mistreated. Imagine if it were you; imagine if it were your sister, daughter, son, husband or wife. At the barest minimum, current trafficking fails the ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ rule that crosses all religious borders.