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When 'Help' is the Problem: Questioning 'Human Trafficking' Policies in the Gulf

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Meskerem was living in an abandoned construction site, working odd jobs with very little pay when I met her on the streets of Dubai in 2008. Her story exemplifies the experiences of the numerous migrant men and women who make up the majority of Dubai's work force. Meskerem's father had passed away and left her family in high debt in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. She decided to migrate in search of employment as a domestic worker in the Gulf, but was told by her Ministry of Labor that she could not migrate without having to undergo many months of training and would have to pay for her passage and a visa. A short time later, however, her mother met a man, an illegal recruiter, who said he could facilitate travel to Dubai at no cost and find high-income-generating work for Meskerem. Though she was weary of such an irregular means of migration, Meskerem said, "I knew it was risky, but I had no choice. I had to make money, and this was the only way to get it fast." Meskerem was placed in the home of a family who abused her regularly. When she tried to contact her recruiter, she found out that she had migrated on a tourist visa that had expired and was working illegally. Her recruiter told her he could not help her until she repaid her debt to him. Stuck in a bad situation, abused by her employers, with nowhere to turn, Meskerem is a clear case of the force, fraud and coercion that are at the core of the definition of human trafficking. However, because she is outside the sex industry, and was not kidnapped, she may not fall into popular imaginings of "trafficked."

Current policies and conversations about human trafficking are having a detrimental effect on those they are designed to help. This is because there is a sharp disconnect between stereotypes and images of the typical "trafficked victim" and the reality of forced labor and migration globally. The result: a series of policies that actually operate to the detriment of migrant workers in the Middle East and worldwide.

The United Nations document on trafficking is perhaps the most comprehensive in its definition of the term. However, note the title of the document: the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (emphasis mine). Furthermore, note that this protocol is operated through the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (a curious place for a human rights document). Though the definition of trafficking in this document is broad enough to encapsulate all those who have experienced any form of force, fraud or coercion in migration, the focus is narrowed to hyperscrutiny on women and children in the sex industry.

Moving from the UN to other high-impact policies and their domino effects, it is useful to look at United States legislation on trafficking as these laws have set global standards and have had international reverberations. In the year 2000, Bill Clinton signed into effect the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which was revised and reauthorized under George W. Bush. This act, and its international component, the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), focuses the issue further on women in the sex industry. The TIP, especially, is not only biased by gender, but many have noted that it exhibits U.S. foreign policy biases as well. A global scorecard intended to rank all countries according to perceived compliance with U.S. anti-trafficking standards, the TIP has generated much international controversy. The opaque nature of its compilation has been highlighted, as well as the fact that country rankings align more closely with who the U.S. ranks as friend and who the U.S. ranks as foe than actual trafficking problems.

Until recently, the TIP casts the UAE as a major site of sex trafficking, but does not equally address abuses due to labor violations (which in fact constitute the majority of rights violations given the weakness of labor laws in the UAE). In so doing, the TIP Report silences the many narratives that challenge this narrow conception of human trafficking in the UAE. There are both sex workers who choose to migrate to Dubai in search of better economic opportunities, and there are many men in the construction or service industries (such as taxi drivers, or hotel employees) who suffer serious violations of their rights and are very possibly "tricked" (i.e. trafficked) into their current employment situations. Furthermore, neither of these scenarios accounts for what may be the most prevalent situation facing women in Dubai's service industry, in which they may seek out employment of their own volition, but upon arrival, or during the course of their stay, face instances of unexpected abuse or entrapment, with no avenues to turn to for recourse. Policies on trafficking that focus hyperscrutiny on sex work eclipse the instances of forced labor experienced by migrant workers outside the sex industry in Dubai. Addressing human trafficking according to U.S. anti-trafficking standards requires an increase in the numbers of arrests and raids of women in the sex industry. Far from helping these women, raids and arrests feel more abusive to many sex workers in Dubai, who noted that the bulk of their abuse comes from untrained law enforcement officials during raid and "rescue" efforts.

While it is tempting to argue that the term trafficking should be discarded altogether from discourse and policy, such an eventuality is highly unlikely given the force with which it has taken hold in the last decade. A more productive pursuit would be to reconceptualize human trafficking as one particular form of abusive practices found along a continuum of diverse experiences. We must disengage from the notion that trafficking is rooted in a rising global demand for commercial sex, and confront the problem as yet another component of a massive response to severe global economic inequalities.