ABU DHABI // Victims of human trafficking will be given new legal rights and the criminals responsible will face tough new penalties including life imprisonment.
Amendments to the 2006 Human Trafficking Law being considered by a committee of the Federal National Council are intended to ensure all those responsible are penalised and that victims get unprecedented legal protection, as well as the medical, emotional and psychological help they need. Witnesses will also be given legal protection.
Trafficking children or the disabled will carry a life sentence, previously imposed only for trafficking women and disabled children, as will causing an incurable disease or a permanent disability.
"The amendments are for the benefit of the victim and ensures their protection," said Dr Saeed Al Ghafli, a member of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking. "The committee had noticed some gaps in the current law, so the amendments were proposed."
Most victims are already referred to an Ewaa shelter but the amendments make it a legal requirement for them all to be taken to a shelter for care "if they need to be".
In custody and during all investigations, victims will first have to be told of all their legal rights in a language they understand and be given the opportunity to express their legal, physical and social needs.
They will be provided with a court-funded lawyer and if they ask for, or appear to need, medical or psychological support, they must be taken to a health centre.
Once court proceedings are over, the victim and any witnesses may stay in the country if they wish.
Those who disseminate photographs or names of victims will be fined up to Dh1,000 or jailed.
"Before, this was not a crime," Dr Al Ghafli said.
The changes will help the UAE to adhere to the Palermo agreement, an international legal protocol attached to the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, which was adopted in 2000 and to which the UAE signed up in 2009, Dr Al Ghalfi said.
The amendments were passed by the Cabinet this year and are now with the FNC's legal committee for further study. Its report will be referred to the full council for debate.
Trafficking cases fell from 58 in 2010 to 37 in 2011. There were 43 in 2009 and 20 in 2008. There were 10 recorded in 2007, the year the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking was established.
Dr Anwar Gargash, the committee chairman, has said the recorded cases were "just the tip of the iceberg", but the drop was a sign of the committee's efforts and a growing awareness. The committee has said that with the large number of workers coming in every year, there was the potential for criminals to recruit women under the guise of legitimate jobs.
"For the majority of such people, it is only when they arrive in the UAE that they realise that the work they were promised does not exist, and they are forced instead to work in jobs or conditions to which they did not give their consent," the national committee's most recent report states.
Under the amendments, the body's role has been expanded to give it responsibility for developing a comprehensive strategy to combat human trafficking.
Once passed, the law will be enacted on the day it is published in the official gazette.