x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Traffickers' cash may be used to aid victims

People traffickers could have their funds seized and used to help their victims as part of radical new proposals.

DUBAI // People traffickers could have their funds seized and used to help their victims as part of radical new proposals. The move was on a list of 20 recommendations issued yesterday at the end of a forum on tackling modern-day slavery.

There were also calls for amendments to trafficking legislation and the creation of a unified, national mechanism to detect and deal with victims. The proposals will be studied by the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT), which will consult with the relevant authorities. "Some might be refused, some might need further study," Dr Saeed al Ghufli, the executive director at the Ministry of State for Foreign Affairs, said on the sidelines of the two-day forum.

"But most of the recommendations are relevant." Among the "strongest", according to Dr al Ghufli, who is also the co-ordinator for the NCCHT, was the proposal for a national plan to protect the rights of trafficking victims. Although there were no immediate specifics on what the plan would entail, Dr al Ghufli hailed the concept. He conceded, however, that it would require a lot of work and co-ordination among authorities.

Among the other proposals was a call for more shelters for victims, particularly in the northern emirates. Currently there are only two shelters in the country, in Abu Dhabi and in Dubai. The Ewaa Shelters for Women and Children opened in the capital in January, under the umbrella of the UAE Red Crescent Authority, with plans to open other facilities. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children was opened in 2007, following a decree by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to help trafficked women and victims of domestic violence.

A helpline for trafficking victims, covering the entire country and managed by the Ministry of Interior, was also proposed, as was the creation of a fund for victim counselling and rehabilitation that would be financed using money confiscated from traffickers. Calls were made for the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases to be speeded up. Law 51, the anti-trafficking legislation introduced in 2006, prescribes harsh penalties for those found guilty, including life sentences and fines of up to Dh1 million (US$270,000).

However, on Monday, Dr al Ghufli said amendments to Law 51 were being proposed by the NCCHT to bring it more in line with the Palermo Protocol, the UN convention on human trafficking, which offers guidelines for the protection and repatriation of victims. The protocol was ratified by the Emirates last year. The forum was organised by Dubai Police and the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children to unify the efforts of authorities combating human trafficking.

Officials who spoke on the first day said the number of trafficking cases had risen by more than 80 per cent this year, which they linked to anti-trafficking efforts. In the first nine months of this year, there were 36 cases registered, compared with 20 in 2008. Humaid bin Deemas, the acting director general at the Ministry of Labour, said yesterday that the UAE could be more susceptible to human trafficking cases because of the transnational nature of the crime coupled with the fact that 85 per cent of the population were expatriates. There was an added problem of differentiating between clear cases of human trafficking and other labour violations, he added.

"Although our rules and regulations on human trafficking are clear, certain labour violations risk developing into human trafficking cases," he said. "This is why we at the ministry are working on being proactive in our methods of protecting workers, before it reaches that level." Lt Col Sultan al Jamal, of Dubai Police, the head of the centre for monitoring human trafficking, said it had been effective in providing support for victims since it was set up in February.

However, he saw its role evolving to include the increasing detection of victims, who had not come forward, by becoming more involved with vulnerable communities, including migrant workers. Dr Mariam al Matrooshi, the director of legislation at the Ministry of Health, said the healthcare system could be used to identify possible trafficking victims, particularly those forced into prostitution who might have contracted sexually transmitted diseases.

"We need to be more active in finding out these cases and formulating a comprehensive screening system to detect possible trafficking victims who come through the health system," she said. Dr Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University, spoke of the need to come to terms with what he described as the "politicisation" of reports on human rights in the Emirates. He cited a study released this year by the US state department, which put the UAE back on the second tier of a watch list of countries cited for their records on human trafficking.

"The thinking and intentions behind the reports are good, the people who put them together mean well and are professional," he said. "But the reports are usually subject to manipulation, and used and abused for political agendas." Although that was a "fact of life", Dr Abdullah said, the UAE and the wider region needed to produce their own reports on human-rights issues, including trafficking. "This has to be done in line with the best international standards," he said, citing the Arab Human Development Report as a possible benchmark for future reports.

That report, compiled by the UN Development Programme, covered a range of topics, from security to food sources. "We need to recognise our shortcomings and frankly talk about them," Dr Abdullah said. zconstantine@thenational.ae wissa@thenational.ae