Article, Social Justice

Human Trafficking in the Gulf States

January 16, 2016

Laya Behbahani: Human Trafficking in the Gulf States
January 31, 2017, 7:00 PM | FREE, no registration required
Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, 149 W. Hastings St

Human trafficking and human rights violations of migrant workers in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states of the Middle East is a growing concern. In parts of the Gulf, migrant workers make up over 90 per cent of the population. On Tuesday January 31, SFU alumna Laya Behbahani will discuss how the abuse of migrant workers in the Gulf constitutes human trafficking, and how the issue needs to be examined with the intention of prevention.

After her talk, Behbahani will be in conversation with Adel Iskandar, assistant professor of Global Communication at SFU.

Growing up in Dubai, Behbahani recognized that migrant workers comprised a visible majority at a very early age, and remembers hearing about the rampant abuse of such workers. When she began her undergraduate studies in Criminology at SFU, she was determined to gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon she witnessed as a child. “I decided to undertake my honours research focusing on trafficking and unfree labour in the Gulf States and eventually expanded my research towards my MA program, also in Criminology,” said Behbahani.

“The results of my research and the literature I was exposed to in the process have led me to appreciate the importance of this subject, which receives minimal attention, highlighting the need for discussion and hopefully action towards improving the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf.”

The main message she hopes to share during her talk is that the issue of human trafficking needs to be examined with the intent of prevention. “Campaigns to address human trafficking are often focused on what is known as the 4 P’s, namely Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnerships,” explains Behbahani.

“If human trafficking in the Gulf States and other parts of the world can be prevented altogether, that eliminates the need for funding that is contributed to prosecution, protection and partnerships.” While arguing that prevention is key, Behbahani acknowledges that all four elements are necessary, and prevention is difficult without the threat of prosecution.

Throughout her research, Behbahani argues that the systemic abuse of migrant workers in the Gulf States does not merely constitute gross labour violations, but is in fact human trafficking. “The combination of elements that constitute human trafficking are met through the kafala system, which is the system of sponsorship by which migrant workers are deployed to the Middle East,” she explains. “Some of the GCC states advertise jobs which are highly deceptive in nature, promising substantive pay and labour freedoms, when in nature the jobs offered to migrant workers in particular sectors are highly abusive and entail withholding of passports, harbouring of migrant workers whereby they are denied the freedom of movement with the intention of exploiting them and exposing them to slave-like working conditions.”

The kafala system links migrant workers to their kafeels (sponsors). This, Behbahani notes, “limits their mobility rights, their right to association, their right to fair wages, their right to switch employment and their most basic rights to adequate working conditions. This system essentially creates highly exploitative conditions and allows unscrupulous recruitment firms and some sponsors to retain workers in situations akin to indentured slavery.”

Moreover, many of the GCC states operate on a unique hybrid legal system, which allows the states to apply common law, civil law and Shariah* to different situations and aspects of society. More often than not, common law and civil law are applied to matters concerning business and financial interests, and various interpretations of Shariah are applied to all other matters.

In addition, there is what Behbahani refers to as a “vacuum of labour laws in which certain categories of workers deemed as ‘unskilled workers’ are hired. In this vacuum of labour laws, ‘unskilled’ workers are not privy to the same labour laws that protect ‘skilled’ workers.” The GCC is dependant on foreign labour to upkeep the oil, natural gas, and tourism industries.

Behbahani’s research involved interviews with individuals addressing the issue of human trafficking in the GCC, legal experts, and scholars. She also conducted content analysis of over 17,000 media articles, which highlighted the contributing factors, various perspectives, and elements of the issue.

“I believe that the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf States necessitates an unprecedented level of attention because the treatment until now, has been classified at best as ‘labour violations’ or ‘abuse’ when in fact, when looking at the substance of the cases, it is evident to an unbiased eye that the situation is more indicative of human trafficking and not merely labour infractions.”

* In this case, Shariah refers to an interpretation of Islamic law, which scholars and law makers derive not from a legal code, but from a number of different religious texts and narrations.

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