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1 November 2006

Sigma Huda, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, made the following statement to media today at the end of her visit to Bahrain:

Permit me first of all to thank the Government for inviting me to Bahrain. I would also like to commend the Government for the openness and cooperation it has demonstrated in the course of my 4-days fact-finding mission to Bahrain. I have been granted access to all state facilities I had requested to visit, including a labour camp and a processing centre. In addition, I had the chance to consult with senior government officials, members of the judiciary, senior diplomats, United Nations officials as well as representatives of non-governmental organisations, civil society and victims themselves. I would like to thank everybody for taking the time to meet with me and discuss frankly the human trafficking situation in Bahrain.

In simplifying an internationally accepted definition of human trafficking, one can say that a person is trafficked if he, or more typically, she is brought into a situation of economic or sexual exploitation – including prostitution – by force, coercion, abduction, fraud or deception. I would like to clarify that a person can be trafficked across an international border even if he or she holds a valid visa. There can also be human trafficking within one and the same country. My mandate as Special Rapporteur aims to protect the human rights of trafficked persons, while preventing other human beings from falling victims to a crime that is unfortunately prevalent in Bahrain. The issue of demand for all forms of exploitation and the push- and pull-factors relating to exploitation are also concerns covered by my mandate.

I am pleased to note that the Government has recognized human trafficking as a problem and has been taking measures to address it. The Government has drafted an anti-trafficking Bill which appears to be comprehensive and is due to be enacted shortly after the new Parliament takes office. I hope that the Government will promptly take steps to bring the other related laws into conformity with the proposed law to ensure lack of ambiguity in the legislative framework. I also welcome the labour reform that the Government has prepared and that is aimed at strengthening the protection of migrant workers.

Yet much remains to be done for the Government to implement Bahrain’s international obligations related to human trafficking. In the course of my mission, I have found that a significant number of human beings, including women, are trafficked into Bahrain. Unfortunately, their plight seems to remain unknown to significant parts of Bahraini society, perhaps because the victims tend to be foreign nationals or are considered to be of low social status. Bahrain’s victims of trafficking are often invisible victims because they suffer in places that remain hidden to the public eye, such as private homes, hotel rooms or labour camps. Many of my interlocutors, including senior government officials, also acknowledged that widely held attitudes of discrimination on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity, and gender contribute to the prevalence of human trafficking.

I am particularly concerned that a significant number among the approximately 300,000 migrant workers in Bahrain become victims of human trafficking. Approximately 50,000 of these are female domestic migrant workers. People from Asia or Africa travel to a foreign country and culture in order to make a living for themselves and earn money to send to the families and loved ones they leave thousands of kilometres behind. The basic human rights of these migrant workers remain inadequately protected as there are still gaps in the enforcement of the relevant laws by the authorities of Bahrain. In particular I found that female domestic migrant workers are the most disadvantaged, in that they remain excluded from the protection of the current labour legislation. Instead, it is largely left up to the benevolence and human compassion of the employers, whether the human rights of the workers are upheld or not. For this reason, I have been very encouraged to hear from the Ministry of Labour that it intends to present legislation on domestic migrant workers within one month from now. I am hopeful that this will also be of great help in preventing further trafficking and exploitation.

Many families – a majority I would hope – respect the dignity and human rights of their domestic workers. Some even come to treat their domestic migrant workers like members of their own families. However, other domestic workers are less fortunate and are subject to degrading conditions. These migrants are often lured in their country of origin by unscrupulous recruiting agents with false promises of a certain job or certain working conditions. More often than not they are shocked to find themselves in exploitative situations upon arrival in Bahrain. Fourteen to 16 hour working days - seven days a week, and the withholding or delay of wages are not uncommon. Some employers also confine domestic migrant workers in the house, confiscating their passports and depriving them of access to basic means of communication such as the telephone or mail. Physical abuse is also a problem. Some victims told me of incidents of severe and traumatic abuse including mental and verbal abuse. Others complained of insufficient or no meals being allowed resulting in stealing food from the employers or eating the left-over scraps.

Access to justice for domestic and other migrant workers with complaints of abuse and maltreatment is still lacking as legal proceedings are extraordinarily lengthy, often have limited access to counsel and interpretation.

Applicable international standards oblige Bahrain to identify and treat victims of human trafficking as victims. However, domestic workers who flee situations of exploitation and abuse are frequently re-victimized. Their cases often fail to be investigated with due diligence by the authorities and the victims are considered to be irregular migrants whose visas lapsed once they fled from exploitative or abusive employers. In many cases these victims end up in a detention centre before being deported, while the perpetrators enjoy impunity.

As a positive development, I would like to mention the creation of a safe house which will accommodate victims of abuse and exploitation including domestic migrant workers. In view of the magnitude of the problem the Government needs to assure that more such safe houses are created. With regard to the protection of foreign migrant workers including trafficked persons, I would like to call upon the consulates of sending countries to follow the positive example of countries such as the Philippines and protect the human rights of their nationals through comprehensive protection programmes.

Similar conditions prevail for the entertainers who are mostly from Thailand, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and Uzbekistan to name a few. I received reports during the mission that there are cases of artists from Thailand who, after receiving a visa upon entry, end up in prostitution. I am concerned that some of these “artists” may be deceived prior to their departure for Bahrain about the type or conditions of the activity they eventually have to engage in. The vulnerability is exacerbated by the fact that the Bahraini Penal Code criminalizes prostitution. A woman engaging in acts of prostitution may be subject to prosecution, detention and deportation. At the same time, the persons who are entertained as customers are not punished. This double standard increases the vulnerability of women who were forced into prostitution since they face the risk of criminal proceedings, while their traffickers can cloak themselves into a suit of legality.

Finally, I would like to express specific concern about girls who are recruited as domestic migrant workers even though they are minors. Recruiters both in the countries of origin and Bahrain create documents falsifying the age of the minors in order to gain access to the country.

I will offer the Government my recommendations which will be aimed at eliminating trafficking in persons and enhancing the protection of the human rights of the victims and hope that the international community as well as NGOs and civil society can continue to work together towards this end.

Biographical Note:

Sigma Huda is a lawyer and human rights defender in Bangladesh. She has been serving as the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons since October 2004. In this capacity, she has visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in February 2005 and Lebanon in 2006. She is currently travelling in the three Gulf States of Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.