Sex, Lies and Crime: Human Trafficking in the Middle East

Sex, Lies and Crime: Human Trafficking in the Middle East

In a previous issue of The Islamic Monthly, I examined the pervasiveness of human trafficking in Southeast Asia. This article examines the same issue in the Middle East. Home to world heritage sites, priceless antiquities and soaring skyscrapers, this region is a jigsaw puzzle of contradictions and contrasts, where old customs bump into modern ways. Buried beneath breathtaking views and sacred sites is the clandestine commerce of human trafficking. Perhaps the slogans of these businesses should be: “Three Cs Domestic Services: Cleaning, Cooking and Confinement!”; “Let Us Put You To Work — and Into Debt”; “Love for Sale”; “Child Brides, Child Sex Trafficking, and Child Soldiers R Us!”; and “Crime, Unlimited.”

In 2013, the Walk Free Global Index of Slavery estimated that “2.54% or approximately three-quarters of a million people are enslaved in the Middle East and North Africa.” It also indicated that this region has the “highest level of discrimination against women … with forced and child marriages … as well as forced prostitution and domestic workers.”[i] Popular television shows have taught viewers to look for the triangle of crime: motive, opportunity and means. With estimates of $34 billion to $150 billion in revenues generated, profit and greed are the motives for the transnational crime of human trafficking.

Combined with the opportunities created by the exponential growth of wealthy nations, neighboring countries riddled with conflict and the destabilization of governments, this part of the world offers not only the means, but also the motives, opportunities and environment conducive to labor and human trafficking for sex. News reports have focused on the plight of women and children victimized in areas of unrest. However, men desperate for a better life can also become ensnared in webs of deceit that lure them into debt bondage and slavery.


Data Sources

I use the definition of “human trafficking” that the United Nations 2000 Protocol on human trafficking uses. Data from the 2014 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report and the International Labour Organization Report, Tricked and Trapped: Human Trafficking in the Middle East as well as other reputable sources were used to study Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. I examined each country for ranking Tier 1, 2 or 3, where Tier 1 represents best practices and Tier 3 represents worst practices; type of trafficking; whether the country was one of origin, destination, or transit; push and pull factors; estimates of numbers of victims; promises made to the victims versus reality; suspects; and consequences to the traffickers. For purposes of categorization, I organized the countries with the most troubling track records by the business slogans I suggest above.

“Three Cs Domestic Services: Cleaning, Cooking and Confinement!”

As the largest employer of domestic workers in the world, the wealthy gulf country of Saudi Arabia has been ranked as a Tier 3 nation for the past seven years for human trafficking. Kuwait, another affluent nation, also Tier 3 for the same time period, is neck and neck with Saudi Arabia for labor abuses. Close behind these two countries in numbers and levels of abuse are Egypt (Tier 2) and Iran (Tier 3). People from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, and other countries migrate voluntarily for domestic work on the basis of employment agencies’ promises of lucrative jobs. Upon entering the country, they find themselves deceived and enslaved — within the bounds of a legal sponsorship system.

This system, also known as kafala, brings workers into the country and puts all the power into the hands of the employer. Often, passports are taken away from workers at the airport when they arrive and are given directly to the employment agency or employer along with other identification documents. Employers say they are protecting the passports from loss, and thereby protecting the employee, who might “lose their documents.” Although it is illegal in these countries to keep a worker’s passport, authorities routinely overlook these “infractions.” By withholding the passport, the employer immobilizes and imprisons the worker.

Domestic workers who labor in isolation in homes are subject to confinement, long work hours, food deprivation, sleeping on floors, lack of privacy or the ability to communicate with people outside the household, withholding of wages, and physical, psychological and sexual abuse. If they complain to the police, the employers quite often accuse them of absconding, i.e., theft, and they are incarcerated. If an abused worker is able to get to her embassy to complain, she may have a shot at repatriation to her home country — if her employer will give her exit papers, which are required to leave the country. It is a Catch-22, one that leads workers to desperation and despair. In 2012 in Lebanon, which has been on the Tier 2 Watch List for the past three years, an Ethiopian domestic worker committed suicide shortly after being beaten in public.

There are occasional reports of workers being freed from abusive circumstances. In Jordan, a Tier 2 country, 1,200 domestic workers and the 17 children born to them while in confinement were repatriated in 2013. In Kuwait, where workers must be referred to shelters by a foreign embassy or a non-governmental organization (NGO), at least 200 workers ran away from their employers in 2013. The interior minister issued 1,000 emergency repatriation documents the same year, a sign of the level of abuses in Kuwait given the difficulty of escaping from a household. One domestic worker who was interviewed by the International Labor Organization, for its study of labor trafficking in Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, escaped only after disabling security cameras and sensors that monitored every movement in the large house.

Running away is a risky proposition. If the worker is unable to reach an embassy or an NGO, she may be arrested and detained for long periods of time. Lacking passports and exit papers, runaway workers are at the mercy of criminals who exploit their illegal status and force them into prostitution or begging. For many domestic workers, there is no way out and no way home.

“Let Us Put You to Work — and Into Debt”

Child abuse:

Construction work, oil, gas and transportation industries call many men to leave poverty and uncertain futures in their home countries and voluntarily migrate to wealthier ones. Qatar (Tier 2) has been in the news because of the construction of the 2022 FIFA World Cup soccer stadium. The majority (94%) of the workforce in Qatar is foreign, coming into the country via the same sponsorship system described earlier.

“Labor brokers in the U.A.E., Oman, and Iran deceive workers into accepting work [in Qatar] that is really forced labor,” according to the State Department report.[ii] These agencies often charge exorbitant recruitment fees that workers can never repay because their wages are withheld by employers. Debt bondage ensures workers will be enslaved for long periods, years even, if they survive the desert heat.

Abuses of construction workers include withholding of passports, overcrowded and squalid living conditions, long work hours and food deprivation. A number of workers have died of heart failure due to overwork in the intense heat.

Although the government convicted 40 Qatari nationals of selling illegal visas in 2013, labor trafficking is treated as a labor dispute. Workers are often handed over to the next employer without any investigation of whether the labor was forced. Although there is a draft decree in place requiring employers to open bank accounts for employees and deposit wages electronically so payments can be monitored, officials downplay the existence of trafficking in Qatar. The recent outcry over these issues has prompted the government to announce sweeping reforms; however, the results of these reforms remain to be seen.

Bahrain has been Tier 2 for three years. Workers from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Eritrea and Uzbekistan migrate for jobs as domestic workers or unskilled laborers in construction and service industries. The sponsorship system, coupled with the withholding of passports and wages, forced labor and debt bondage in this country, have led to high suicide rates among migrant workers, especially those from India. Labor trafficking offenses are treated as labor disputes. In 2013, there was no prosecution of potential forced labor offenders, even though it was well documented by NGOs and embassies.

The United Arab Emirates (Tier 2) has a well-publicized Federal Law Number 51, passed in 2006, that prohibits trafficking. Migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Republic of Korea (i.e., South Korea), Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and other countries flock to the wealthy nation in search of good jobs. Despite the law, the U.A.E. rarely prosecutes labor trafficking, considering these to be labor disputes, not evidence of forced labor.

When traffickers have been prosecuted, the majority of those convicted were from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The minority were Emirati citizens, despite evidence that unscrupulous employment agencies in the U.A.E. have been known to charge exorbitant recruitment fees, essentially enslaving workers in debt bondage. Domestic workers are not covered by Emirati labor laws and are excluded from visa laws, leaving them open to forced labor, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, as well as debt bondage.

Women account for 63% of the workers in garment factories in Jordan (Tier 2). Many have their passports and wages withheld, and face long work hours, sexual harassment, forced labor and debt bondage. The sponsorship system, again, underpins many of the abuses these workers experience. Migrant Egyptians are the largest source of foreign workers in Jordan in construction, and they, too, are often subjected to poor working conditions, debt bondage and enslavement.

Jordan’s humanitarian provision of refugee and displaced person camps for Syrian families has put it in the unenviable role of providing an environment conducive to the exploitation of women and children. The Jordanian Ministry of Labor “estimates 30,000 Syrian children are working illegally in the country, putting them at risk for trafficking,” according to the State Department report. Syrian refugees are at particular risk for trafficking wherever they go, it seems, and women and children are the most exploited, often by their own families and countrymen.

“Love for Sale”

Reports of wealthy men from gulf countries roaming refugee camps in Jordan have become more common. Desperate to support themselves and their families, Syrian families have been known to sell their young daughters using temporary marriages, known as sigheh, segheh, or mu’ta. Wealthy individuals from Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Kuwait travel to Egypt to purchase women and girls for temporary marriages, facilitated by parents and guardians. Girls as young as 10 have been sold in this manner and later found in the streets of the men’s home countries with no way to return to their families and no one willing to take them in — except for traffickers. These children are throwaway kids, abused, used and discarded when the men are done with them.

Forced prostitution has grown along with the conflict and destabilization of governments in the Middle East. Syrian women who think they will become second wives to Egyptian men instead find themselves in forced prostitution, labor or begging. Facilitated by temporary marriages, Iran, a Tier 3 country not party to the 2000 U.N. Protocol, has a brisk business in forced prostitution among women and children from Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Criminal organizations play a “significant role in trafficking” in Iran, according to the State Department.[iii] Widespread corruption among government officials means trafficking laws are not enforced, and perpetrators face no consequences. Women who have been trafficked into prostitution are liable to be prosecuted for adultery, punishable by death. For these women, prostitution or death are their only choices.

In Iraq, a Tier 2 nation, forced prostitution without temporary marriage is prevalent. Criminal gangs and police kidnap and force women into prostitution or rape them and put it on film, then blackmail them into prostitution. Iraqi taxi drivers have been reported to force Syrian women into prostitution, as have parents, husbands and other family members and trusted people. The victims are subject to repeated rape, torture, arrests, imprisonment and honor killings.

Cyprus (Tier 2) has employment agencies and employers who sell counterfeit visas to migrant workers for nonexistent jobs. Women from Eastern Europe, Vietnam, India and sub-Saharan Africa are most likely to be trafficked. The women believe they are migrating to Cyprus for marriage or jobs in domestic work, clubs or bars. Instead of becoming wives, maids, hostesses or barmaids, the women are forced into prostitution in commercial sex trade outlets, such as hotels, bars, clubs and apartments. Although Cyprus forbids forced prostitution, women who work in clubs are often locked in dormitories adjacent to the clubs and subjected to regular inspections for sexually transmitted diseases. The government does not prosecute traffickers, despite having shelters for victims and laws against trafficking.

“Child Sex Trafficking, Child Brides, and Child Soldiers R Us!”

Egypt (Tier 2) is a destination for pedophiles, especially Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor. Cities teem with an estimated 200,000 to 1 million street children who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced begging. In Iraq, where there are large populations of displaced persons, families sell their children for sex trafficking.

While Egypt has laws on the books to prevent child trafficking, the identification of traffickers and investigation and prosecution of cases lag. In Iraq, there are no efforts to prosecute traffickers, though there are shelters for victims and laws against trafficking. Victims are treated as criminals and imprisoned. Families who sell daughters into prostitution will not take them back if they are arrested or returned to them.

Yemen (Tier 3) is a country of child victims, with 1.7 million laborers under the age of 14, some subjected to forced labor. Child laborers, beggars, brides and soldiers have little to hope for. Women and children from Ethiopia and Somalia migrate to Yemen in an effort to reach wealthy gulf countries. Instead, upon arrival, they are exploited and abused. Yemeni and Saudi gangs traffic children. Forced into prostitution, child sex or child soldiering, no one is safe from traffickers.

Houthi families in Yemen send their children to support Houthi rebels. Boys are recruited by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Girls as young as 15 are put in hotels and clubs for prostitution. Girls as young as 8 are sold as brides; at least one died from internal injuries on the wedding night. Children are forced into armed conflict and used as human shields, despite a law prohibiting the recruitment of children under the age of 18. In addition to trafficking, chattel slavery still exists in parts of the country with 300 to 500 men, women and children born into slavery.

Yemen is not a party to the 2000 U.N. TIP Protocol. There are no laws against many forms of forced prostitution and forced labor. No efforts are in place to prevent or punish human trafficking. The government is complicit in child soldiering. It does not enforce the laws, does not remove the children from armed conflict and does not rehabilitate them.

Syria (Tier 3) is also a country of child victims. Conflicts and chaos have led to the rise of gangs that impress women and children. The Syrian government, government-affiliated militias and non-state armed groups all use child soldiers. The Syrian government, which had pledged to stop child soldiering, has continued to use children under the age of 18 in its armed forces. Children as young as 13 have been documented at checkpoints at Aleppo and other cities. Syria is not a party to the 2000 TIP Protocol. The government makes no effort to identify or protect trafficking victims, nor does it make any effort to investigate or prosecute traffickers, despite having laws against trafficking.

“Crime, Unlimited”

Perhaps no other entity personifies this heading more than the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” or TRNC. Located in the northern portion of Cyprus and recognized as sovereign only by Turkey, TRNC is a nightmare realm of crime that conjures up the fictional city of Gotham. To say it is a Tier 3 entity is an understatement. Forced labor and prostitution in industrial, construction, domestic, restaurant and retail sectors is the rule rather than the exception. Employment agencies and employers force men, women and children into sex and labor trafficking. Lured with promises of good jobs, women from Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Vietnam and Africa are most likely to be forced into prostitution in commercial sex trade outlets, such as hotels, bars, clubs and apartments. The government regulates licenses for clubs where forced prostitution occurs. There is not even the pretense of prohibitions; the police are complicit with traffickers. This is truly a “zone of impunity for human trafficking,” according to the State Department.[iv]

Organized crime plays a large role in maintaining the trafficking trade. In the Sinai Peninsula, gangs and crime rings prey on migrants and refugees. Women, men and children from Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire head into the Sinai Peninsula hoping to make it to the safety of Egypt or Israel. They may pay smugglers to take them across and instead find themselves trafficked, abducted and extorted. Many are forced to work in agriculture, others in construction, and still others are forced into prostitution.

In Iran, criminal organizations play a “significant role in trafficking,” the State Department says[v]. About 35,000 to 40,000 children are forced into begging or selling drugs by parents or crime rings in Tehran. As noted earlier, gangs and crime rings control forced prostitution in Iran, Iraq and Syria. In Lebanon, women who travel into the country on artiste visas expecting to work as performers and entertainers are subject to forced prostitution by employment agents or criminals. Syrian gangs in Lebanon prey on Syrian women, forcing them into marriages, prostitution and begging.

Women in Oman are forced into prostitution by their own countrymen. In Turkey, a Tier 2 nation, criminal rings play a major role in forced prostitution, child sex trafficking and forced begging among ethnic Roma children. The government denies the existence of forced labor and child trafficking, and charges of corruption among government officials remain unexamined.

While all these crimes are disturbing, perhaps the most horrific ones are organ and baby trafficking. Despite a Tier 1 status and a strong stance against trafficking of all types, Israel arrested two lawyers, a retired Israeli military man, and others for organ trafficking in 2010. Promising donors more than $100,000 for a kidney, the crime ring gave the donors little to no money. Aside from the risk of dying during surgery, donors were also subject to risks of post-operative infections.

Babies can fetch prices of $300 to $5,500 in Iraq. Infants are sold for adoption, sexual abuse or organ trafficking. Iraq collects no data on these offenses, nor does it investigate or prosecute offenders.

Next Steps

The International Labor Organization[vi] recommends a regional response to human trafficking encompassing 12 key themes. Many of these point to existing infrastructures that can be enhanced with greater commitment to combating this transnational crime. These recommendations include the following, paraphrased from the ILO report:

  • Strengthen the legal framework: In all but a few of the countries surveyed, laws against human trafficking are already in place. These laws need to be reviewed, updated and enforced.
  • Establish and enhance institutions with responsibilities for planning, organizing, leading and monitoring national anti-trafficking efforts. A representative cross-section of stakeholders — including but not limited to government and law officials, employment agencies and employers, non-governmental organizations and former trafficking victims — should serve on these bodies to ensure input from all perspectives. These institutions should report to the highest level of government to ensure the visibility and importance of national anti-trafficking efforts.
  • Create and enforce penal and labor codes for the crimes of labor, sex and child trafficking.
  • Enforce existing labor laws, particularly with respect to the withholding of passports.
  • Create and enforce penal and labor codes for physical, mental and sexual abuse of domestic workers, with specific penalties for employers who refuse to give workers their exit papers.
  • Include domestic workers and in-home caregivers under labor laws and create a standardized contract of employment that spells out the roles and responsibilities of both parties, including but not limited to, wages, hours of work, time off, time out of the household and access to mobile phones.
  • Improve identification of victims of trafficking through better education and training of frontline workers, such as police, physicians, nurses and other first responders.
  • Improve interdepartmental cooperation so labor and law officials have constant communication about ongoing investigations.
  • Establish unannounced labor inspections accompanied by interpreters who can speak directly with employees about working conditions.
  • Establish and enhance direct electronic bank payments for employees to enable random audits of employers’ payment practices.
  • Provide better shelters, resources, counseling and rehabilitation for identified victims of trafficking, rather than warehousing or incarcerating them alongside their traffickers.
  • Prosecute traffickers to a level commensurate with the crime and crimes of a similar nature, such as rape.
  • Improve transnational cooperation to close porous borders to criminals, gangs and human traffickers who have no regard for the laws of any land.
  • Increase public awareness and advocacy through highly visible civil campaigns, with a particular eye to protecting children and other vulnerable populations.

Each nation in this important region of the world has an opportunity to address sex, lies and crimes in their backyard. It’s time for those with the political will to take action and put this clandestine commerce out of business.


Sharon Buchbinder, RN, Ph.D., is an award-winning professor at Stevenson University and author of the novel Obsession, which deals with human trafficking and international kidnapping. Follow her on Twitter at @sbuchbinder.

Acosta, K. & Thomas, L. Early Child Marriage in Syrian Refugee Communities. Connecticut: The Milla Project. (July 2014) http://millaproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Syrian-Refugees-and-Early-Marriage.pdf
Blake, M. Yemeni child bride, eight, dies of internal injuries on first night of forced marriage to groom five times her age. The Daily Mail. (September 9, 2013)
Harroff-Tavel, H. & Nasri, A. Tricked and Trapped: Human Trafficking in the Middle East. International Labour Organization, ILO Regional Office for the Arab States: Beirut, Lebanon. (2013) http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_211214.pdf

Hepburn, S. & Simon, R.J. Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight. New York: N.Y., Columbia University Press. (2013)

Human Trafficking Prices. Havocscope. http://www.havocscope.com/tag/human-trafficking/

Migrant domestic workers endure abuse in UAE: HRW Al-Akhbar English. (October 23, 2014) http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/22154

Omelaniuk, I. Trafficking in Persons: United Nations Expert Group Meeting on International Migration and Development. (July 2005) http://www.un.org/esa/population/meetings/ittmigdev2005/Omelaniuk_pp.pdf
Suicide the only escape for Indian migrant workers. Australian Broadcasting Corp. (July 17, 2012) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-07-17/an-india-workers-suicides/4137110

United Nations. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. New York, N.Y.: United Nations (2000) http://www.uncjin.org/Documents/Conventions/dcatoc/final_documents_2/convention_%20traff_eng.pdf

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes. Transnational Organized Crime: Let’s Put Them Out of Business. (2014) http://www.unodc.org/toc/en/crimes/human-trafficking.html

United States State Department. Trafficking in Persons Report: 2014. Washington, D.C.: U.S. State Department http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2014/index.htm

Walk Free Foundation. The Global Slavery Index. (2013) http://www.globalslaveryindex.org/

[1] Walk Free Global Index of Slavery, p. 29

[1] State Department TIP report, 2014, p. 300

[1] U.S. State Department TIP Report, 2014, p. 209.

[1] U.S. State Department, p. 153

[1] U.S. State Department, 2014, p. 209

[1] 2013, p.123-149

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