Government support, international partnerships deliver major gains in Bahrain’s human trafficking war
Middle East remains a prime destination for trafficked persons subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking in a multi-billion dollar syndicate the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, UNODC, says has now become bolder and sophisticated.
And while numerous countries in the region have stepped up efforts to arrest the situation, fresh cases are being reported as traffickers find innovative ways to outwit authorities.
To counter modem day human trafficking, Bahrain has embraced a hybrid model combining legislation, support for trafficked persons, training of authorities and partnership with international institutions, a move that has not only greatly reduced the number of those trafficked but caught world attention.
Last year, Bahrain became the first Arab country to attain Tier 1 status in the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons report moving from Tier 2 that it has held since 2015. The annual survey monitors and documents efforts of 187 governments in combating human trafficking.
Tier 1, the highest rank, indicates that a country has complied with all standards and fully applied the anti-trafficking measures as spelt out in the U.S. Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act. Bahrain was lauded for its efforts in labour market reforms, the Flexible Work Permit programme and standardized tripartite labour contract system, both which are designed to support private sector growth and render foreign workers less susceptible to labour exploitation.
“Getting elevated to Tier 1 in the US State Department Report is a recognition of the progress that Bahrain has achieved in this field. It was always clear to International Organization for Migration, IOM, that it was only a matter of time before Bahrain reached this level.
IOM is certain that this new challenge will only further motivate the Government of Bahrain to not only reach the top, but to also maintain its position there. The organization will remain to be a dedicated partner to the Kingdom of Bahrain in this exciting new journey,” said Mohamed El Zarkani, IOM Bahrain Officer in Charge after the release of the report. IOM has been assisting Bahrain in its anti-trafficking campaigns.
The concern in the fight against trafficking in human persons is based on the overall vision of the Kingdom of Bahrain on human rights issues, which is reflected in the keenness of His Royal Highness Prince Khalifa bin Salman, Prime Minister to send an annual message to the world on the International Human Rights Day, in which he ensures his vision of the nature of these rights and call upon the international community to preserve the lofty noble principles embodied in these rights and to make them a road map towards the peace desired by the peoples, as well as to warn against the danger of politicizing or exploiting them as a pretext for interfering in the affairs of other countries.
On more than one occasion, His Royal Highness has stressed that the Kingdom of Bahrain, under the leadership of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has laid down the foundations for a pioneering model of human rights based on justice, freedom of opinion and expression, and applying the rule of law on all without distinction and will continue to work in this regard for a better future for all its citizens.
Bahrain was also one of the first countries to submit its third periodic report on efforts to tackle human trafficking to the World Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2017. The report was praised by the majority of delegates within the Council, who expressed their appreciation for the achievements made.
But behind this recognition lies numerous investments and efforts by the Bahrain government that are not only taming the illicit trade, but offering refuge to trafficked persons while prosecuting those fanning it.
Since promulgating the first law to recognize cases of trafficking in persons in 2008, Bahrain has been stepping up war on modern slavery. The law criminalizes sex and labour trafficking, prescribing penalties of up to 15 years imprisonment, a fine of between $5,310 and $26,530 with the offender bearing the cost of repatriating the victims.
It also runs a Protection Center with a capacity of 200 people that provides a safe haven to vulnerable workers and trafficked victims regardless of their legal status while offering them medical, counselling, security protection and legal services which include assisting them in in reaching a settlement or taking legal action against the traffickers. This has been hailed by the United Nations as replicable model while the United States has described it as an example for governments around the world.
With the backing of the anti-trafficking law, the government has made successful convictions among them the sentencing of seven sex traffickers from Bahrain, Russia, and Bangladesh to between five and 10 years imprisonment with fines of between $5,310 and $13,260. And for the first time in 2016, officials convicted a Bahraini national of forced labour involving a Filipino domestic worker. In September 2017, the High Criminal Court sentenced a police officer to five years and a fine of $5,310 for accepting bribes from sex traffickers and using his position to interfere with investigations.
Besides signing various international treaties to end human trafficking and torture Bahrain government has also entered into MOUs with labour exporting countries among them Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India that monitors activities of recruitment agencies and protecting migrant workers while in Bahrain.
The Labor Market Regulatory Authority has been the silver bullet to falling number of trafficked persons in Bahrain through its radical reforms that have placed the country in the global map. The Authority pursues the agenda of protecting the rights of workers at all levels, especially the weaker groups which are more vulnerable to exploitation and deception.
To tame cases of abuse of domestic workers, a phenomenon that has been rife in the Middle East, the Authority has been rolling out a tripartite labour contract since last year which regulates the relationship between the employer and the owner of the employment office and domestic worker. The contract guarantees and defines the rights and duties of the three parties to avoid any misunderstandings while preventing abuse by any work party towards the other.
The contract also requires employers to provide workers with a labour contract specifying working hours, annual leave, and bonuses and to pay workers at least monthly. The Authority maintains copies of the contracts to assist in any future disputes. For the first time, this has allowed domestic workers brought in by recruitment agencies to accept or reject an employment contract in their respective countries of origin.
“Officials developed and facilitated anti-trafficking awareness campaigns across the country, and continued to inform all incoming migrant workers of their rights under Bahraini law,” read a section of the Trafficking in Persons report.
The Authority issued a report last July on Bahrain's efforts to combat trafficking in persons that stressed the importance the country attaches to the rights and equality of individuals without regard to color and gender.
The stewardship of Ausamah al Absi, the man at the helm of the Authority who also chairs the National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons, has been recognized globally earning him the Trafficking in Persons, TIP, Hero award, which was bestowed to only ten people worldwide by US Secretary of States Mike Pompeo.
“We recognize Mr. Absi’s perseverance in advocating for victim-centered policies within the government by establishing one of the region’s top shelters for trafficking victims, launching the government’s new national referral mechanism for trafficking victims, and spearheading efforts to reduce the vulnerability of foreign workers by reforming the government sponsorship system,” said Ms. Kari Johnstone the acting director for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons of the US Department of State while conferring the honour to Mr. Absi.