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Gargash renews UAE's commitment to combat human trafficking

posted on 23/04/2009: 892 views

The UAE is committed to fighting trafficking in persons, especially women and children, said Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT).

In a presentation made yesterday during a seminar on "protection of human trafficking victims", Gargash said the UAE is responsible and committed member of the international community that seeks to assume a pioneering role in the global efforts to stamp out the practice both at the domestic and international levels.

The seminar aims at sharing expertise and knowledge with global partners to fight human trafficking.

"The UAE ratified in 2000 the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, as well as the UN protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children, otherwise known as Palermo Protocol 2008," Gargash said.

"The UAE is not ashamed to admit that the problem of trafficking afflicts this country as it does many other countries. The first report on human trafficking released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime - UNODC - concluded that no country is immune against that phenomenon. In fact, there are 127 countries considered as exporters of human trafficking victims, while 137 countries were cited as destinations for the victims."

He said the Cabinet instructed in 2007 the establishment of the (NCCHT) to support implementation of the federal law no. 51 and to coordinate the combating processes in the seven emirates.

The committee, headed by Gargash, also has members from the ministries of foreign affairs, interior, labour, social affairs, and health. It also comprises members from the national security authority, Red Crescent authority, federal prosecution office, and prosecutor offices of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

According to Gargash, the committee is tasked with developing an implementation framework for this important legislation. The UAE recently ratified the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime which highlights the country's ongoing efforts to address this issue.

A main focus of the Committee on Human Trafficking will be to update legislation related to this issue in order to provide protections and security according to international standards. Other responsibilities include assessment of government implementation procedures, coordination between government divisions, and creation of education awareness of human trafficking issues in society.

Gargash outlined a comprehensive four-pillar action plan to update legislation, to enhance enforcement measures, to support victims, and to expand bilateral agreements and international partnerships in the fields of combating human trafficking.

He also spoke about the Federal Law No.51 on combating human trafficking, which is the first of its kind in the Middle East. The law was enacted in November 2006 with the aim of eradicating trading in persons and protecting and rehabilitating victims of this crime.

The law takes into account the existing federal laws on entry and residency of foreigners, labour, camel races and criminal procedures, as well as the penal code. It calls for strong punitive measures, including maximum penalties of life imprisonment and covers all forms of human trafficking - not just overt enslavement but also sexual exploitation, child labour, and commerce in human organs. A life sentence is also imposed if the crime is committed through deceit, if it involves the use of force or threat of murder or bodily harm, or if it involves physical or psychological torture.

The 16-article law spells stiff penalties against traffickers ranging from one year to life in prison and fines of Dh 100,000 and Dh one million (US$ 27,500 and US$ 275,000).

Gargash quoted reports as saying at least 10 human trafficking-related cases were registered by the end of 2007 under the clauses of Federal Law 51, which came into effect in November 2006. Notably, there were also convictions in at least five cases during this period, with the convicted receiving jail terms ranging from 3 to 10 years for committing, aiding or abetting human trafficking.

"The UAE is working harder to gather and deploy the necessary manpower to efficiently increase the number of anti-human trafficking prosecutions. As part of a comprehensive awareness campaign to enhance public and law enforcement knowledge about this crime and explore ways of limiting it, workshops are being conducted by the UAE National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking in cooperation with various law enforcement departments and ministries. These workshops are attended by the relevant departments of naturalization and residency, police and public prosecution."

The UAE realizes that a proactive policy of improving standards and regulations overall, apart from being important in itself, will also have a positive impact on decreasing the scale of human trafficking and potentially exploitative incidents from occurring. As a result, the government has introduced a series of measures that are beginning to positively impact the country's labour climate.

Stricter laws against human trafficking and unskilled worker-friendly regulations, which are crucial to discourage exploitation, are increasingly being put in place.

"As of January 2008, salary payments to unskilled workers in the country are being paid electronically by their respective companies. The Electronic Wage Payment System will put an end to cash payment of salaries. This will ensure that monthly wages are paid to all employees without fail and on time, giving the government real time access to information regarding payments of salaries," Gargash said.

Punitive action against companies exploiting workers and abusing their rights is expected to become easier and effective. There are currently 250,000 construction workers benefiting from this system, and many more are likely to be positively impacted by this measure once it is comprehensively implemented.

The UAE has prohibited work in open labour sites during the midday hours during summer. For each violation of this provision, companies are fined 30,000 dirhams (US$ 8,000) and banned from receiving additional contracts for three months. Further, no group labour permits (for 25 or more workers) are processed until applicants demonstrate a tangible commitment to adequate housing for workers. Companies must produce evidence that they actually have plans and resources to provide facilities. Several camps housing migrant workers employed in the construction sector which were found to fall short of minimum standards in building, health services, waste disposal, pest control, drinking water and other basic facilities have been closed. The firms that own or run the camps have been given adequate time to provide replacement accommodation that meet international health and safety standards.

A new unified contract to regulate the rights and duties of domestic workers was enforced in April 2007.

A new labour law to protect domestic workers has been drafted by a taskforce as per a Cabinet decree in October 2007 and will be sent to the relevant government bodies for amendments and revisions before promulgation by the UAE President. Domestic workers are mostly comprised of women and vulnerable to exploitation, which is a key concern of the UAE as part of its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women.

"The government firmly believes that those who are sexually exploited must be treated as victims, protected and supported through counseling and rehabilitation programs. At the same time, whoever drove the concerned person into prostitution or coerced labour will be punished according to UAE law." According to him, the government has a healthy track record of providing assistance and protection to victims of sexual abuse. The police departments provide shelter for these victims and counseling. The government works with foreign governments and NGOs when cases are brought to its attention. Victims have been given protection and shelter while their paperwork is processed, and are then repatriated at the government's expense under the 'Crime Victim Assistance Program.' Aside from government-headed initiatives, charitable and social networks are also active in the UAE.

In his presentation, Gargash cited a number of initiatives made in the country to help victims of human trafficking, including: Foundation for the Protection of Women and Children: This independent civil society institution in Dubai was established in 2007. The shelter is the first step towards institutionalizing victim support in line with international standards.

The shelter is governed by an independent board and has linked up with other shelters in the EU for introducing best standards in shelter management and administration. The foundation plays a vital role in improving social services for victims by providing a refuge to overcome the psychological and physical effects of violence, oppression and neglect. The foundation has an in-house school, which can accommodate up to 300 students; lawns surrounding the complex, where children can play; indoor playroom; a well-equipped gymnasium, as well as football, basketball and volleyball facilities for adults; and an in-house restaurant.

In about 10 months since the foundation was established, 115 women and children received assistance after being designated as victims of a number of crimes including human trafficking, domestic violence, family neglect, employer abuse and other social problems. Of these, 28 are suspected victims of trafficking ? 24 have been identified as adults and four have been identified as minors less than 18 years of age. In 2007, the foundation successfully rehabilitated and repatriated three victims with the coordination of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Uzbekistan. By March 2008, three more cases were successfully dealt with and repatriated with the assistance of various authorities and international partners. The foundation is currently sheltering 14 suspected trafficking victims from a variety of countries including Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, India, and Nigeria.

Social Support Center, Abu Dhabi: Operated by the Abu Dhabi Police, this center assists victims of all crimes, including human trafficking. It provides victims - especially women, children and their families - psychological and social support in coordination with other foundations and organizations. The Center assisted with 2605 cases during 2007 - up from 1519 the previous year. The majority of victims were involved in family disputes and domestic violence cases.

Human Rights Care Department, Dubai: Providing social, legal and psychological support to the victims of human trafficking is a key mandate of the Human Rights Care Department, which was established by Dubai Police in 2007 as an extension of a program established in 2003. The investigation, legal assistance and preventive support divisions fulfill the mandate of the department. During 2007, 27 of the 36 people who were identified as human trafficking victims were assisted by this department with a variety of services, including provision of temporary shelter, temporary visas and plane tickets to return home.

Abu Dhabi Shelter for Victims of Human Trafficking: The government has supported the establishment of a new shelter in the capital city of Abu Dhabi in January 2008. The shelter will be established in accordance with international standards and best practices. An executing committee, headed by the UAE Red Crescent Authority has been set up to oversee the establishment of the shelter in collaboration with the UAE National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking.

The shelter will aim to provide rehabilitation and protection for women and children victims of trafficking through a complete social care program that provides assistance in medical treatment, psychological care and counselling, access to legal services, temporary secure accommodation, some basic education and training as well as safe repatriation by aid of a partner women's shelter in the victim's home country.

The shelter is in line with Abu Dhabi's 2007-2008 Policy Agenda, which identifies the key goals and government initiatives for achieving a secure and stable society, including eliminating completely any and all kinds of exploitative or coercive labour practices, with particular focus on the protection of women and minors, as well as the complete eradication of any form of trafficking in persons. Country-wide shelters program: The UAE Red Crescent Authority will supervise efforts to set up shelters across the country for women and children, who are victims of human trafficking using the Abu Dhabi model as a prototype. The comprehensive homes will provide them a haven with healthcare, as well as psychological and social support. The National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking aims to learn from the case profiles in the shelter in order to further improve and enhance the UAE's policies and legislation.

Support for former child jockeys: The UAE's most high-profile effort to address human trafficking occurred a few years ago in response to recruitment practices taking place in the traditional sport of camel racing. Unfortunately, this sport became associated with child exploitation, and once aware of this, the UAE government immediately stepped in to regulate the sport and requested technical expertise from UNICEF to help protect and rehabilitate child victims.

During the period beginning in May 2005, the UAE and the UNICEF intensified their efforts to eradicate this problem. This resulted in a multinational progress review in September 2006, where all 1,077 child camel jockeys were successfully and safely returned to their home countries in Asia and Africa.

Child protection experts and government representatives from the UAE, Bangladesh, Mauritania, Pakistan and Sudan, as well as UNICEF officials participated in the review process and evaluated both results and gaps to support and reintegrate children involved in camel racing. A rehabilitation centre for young former camel jockeys was established in Abu Dhabi, the first of its kind in the world and provided shelter and rehabilitation programs. The repatriation and rehabilitation program included establishment of transit centers providing medical assistance and other services to affected children, a family tracing system, social care of children, educational campaigns and establishment of community care committees.

The repatriation and rehabilitation program was then estimated at Dh 10 million (US$ 2.75 million), funded entirely by the UAE. It was managed by the UAE authorities in association with the Ansar Burney Welfare Trust International in Pakistan and UNICEF.

"Further, he added, "cooperation with the Philippines and India, for example, has resulted in these two countries announcing their refusal to grant emigration clearance to women below 25 and 30 years of age respectively who wish to work in the region in order to protect younger women from possible abuse." "A wage standard has been introduced by some of these countries including Philippines, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. Other bilateral and international agreements include: Collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to help recreate the UAE police administration into a 'centre of excellence' for region-wide information distribution and law enforcement, which will greatly benefit human trafficking issues.

Promoting partnerships with non-government organizations and institutes to exchange knowledge and expertise in the field of human trafficking. The UAE aims to increase the number of such cooperation agreements as part of an effective anti-human trafficking strategy."

Gargash noted that as part of the UAE's commitment to tackle this crime globally and take a lead in this fight, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, committed Dh 55 million (US$ 15 million) to support the UN.GIFT, which is coordinated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

This included sponsoring the United Nations Conference on Trafficking in Persons in Vienna in February 2008, in which the UAE participated proactively, both to disseminate information about its experience and learn from the experts of other participating countries from around the world in terms of data gathering capabilities and investigative techniques.

"The Crown Prince's donation was made out of the belief that the creation of a forum for other countries, multiple UN agencies, intergovernmental entities and the non-governmental sector, all working together under a single banner would lead to unprecedented cooperation by the international community." The Vienna Forum on human trafficking was the first global forum of its kind to be held on such an international scale. Bringing together over 130 countries and 1,600 experts and NGOs working on this issue, the conference was hailed as a great success by the steering committee of the UN.GIFT, as well as many of the delegates who attended the forum. The UAE continues to hold a seat on the steering committee and will proactively support the committee to ensure that the momentum created by the Vienna forum is followed with further actions and their implementation.

He concluded by saying the UAE was acting on every front: Legislation, Enforcement, Victim Support, Bilateral agreements and International Cooperation and that it will continue to demonstrate resolve, and acknowledge where it stills need to improve. Simultaneously, the UAE will continue to cooperate with all appropriate regional and international law enforcement officials to apprehend, prosecute and punish those violating the UAE's human trafficking law and those attempting to use the country as a channel to violate anti-trafficking laws of other countries.

"The UAE has achieved much in a short period of time, but realizes that much more needs to be done to combat the challenge. The country is committed to serving as an active member of the international community, as well as a model for change in the region and takes these responsibilities seriously. The UAE will continue to acknowledge its shortcomings and demonstrate resolve by vigorously improving its four-pillared action plan. At the same time, we will continue to welcome direct discussion and collaboration with other governments, public or private sector groups, or international organizations that will help stem the tide of human trafficking." – Emirates News Agency, WAM


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