x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UN raises concern over Dubai port

World body says smuggling of illicit drugs, counterfeit medicines and contraband tobacco is on the increase at Jebel Ali.

Boxes of goods such as these will have been X-rayed by customs agents at Jebel Ali Port before being sent onwards.
Boxes of goods such as these will have been X-rayed by customs agents at Jebel Ali Port before being sent onwards.

NEW YORK // A UN official has called for tougher controls at Dubai's main port, Jebel Ali, amid claims that criminals are using the free trade zone as a transit point especially for counterfeit medicines and contraband cigarettes, as well as narcotics.

Antonio Maria Costa, the director of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said customs officials needed to tighten checks on container vessels and help stop global contraband gangs from profiting from the illegal trade. He was speaking on the release of a report, Transnational Trafficking and the Rule of Law in West Africa: A Threat Assessment, which says criminals are turning to Jebel Ali as a transit point for fake medicines and contraband cigarettes.

"Together with the licit transactions, financial and economic, there are a lot of illicit activities going on there," said Mr Costa, describing a Gulf-wide problem. "We have proposed to the authorities to establish container profiling and port control initiatives. "I believe that that would be a significant reduction in the trafficking through the Gulf of opium and opiates from Afghanistan, of amphetamines coming from Europe, through Turkey and Syria and to the Gulf, as well as counterfeit medicines."

Dubai officials have said a new intelligence unit within Dubai Customs was already using data gathered by customs and police agencies internationally to profile containers that may contain contraband. "Dubai is a hub for the whole Middle East; 65 per cent of the goods that come in are in transit or for re-export, and a lot of people are trying to utilise the infrastructure for their own purposes," said Mohammad Matar al Marri, the executive director of the cargo operations division at Dubai Customs, in a recent interview.

"The smugglers think that because there is such a large volume of trade things can slip past unnoticed." Scanners are used to check whether containers have hidden compartments, while other specialist units, including sniffer dogs and a mobile laboratory that can identify samples of drugs, are used to check suspect cargo. The 94-page UN report says people smuggling contraband tobacco from the Far East and Europe to West Africa are using the port, the flagship terminal operated by DP World. "Most of the illicit cigarettes entering West Africa are sourced from free trade zones, such as those in the emirate of Dubai. As a result, the route from producer to consumer can be surprisingly roundabout," it says.

UN researchers describe an annual trade in 32 billion illicit cigarettes to North and West Africa. The so-called "cheap whites" are produced in Luxembourg and Bulgaria and transported via Dubai to Togo and Benin, they say. Bootleg cigarettes from China and Vietnam also pass through Dubai en route to West Africa. As much as 80 per cent of the cigarettes smoked in North and West Africa are illicit and help line the pockets of international criminals, the report says.

It also highlights Dubai as a transit point for bootleg and sub-standard anti-malarial and other drugs from India and China that make up more than half the medications used in West Africa. Researchers warn that illegal flows of counterfeit cigarettes and medications, together with illegal drugs, toxic waste, oil and other natural resources, undermines stability in West Africa. Trafficking flows through the region often exceed the gross domestic products (GDPs) of affected states, with the US$438 million (Dh1.6 billion) trade in fake anti-malaria pills topping Guinea-Bissau's GDP; and the $775m fake cigarette business exceeding Gambia's entire national output.

The smuggling gangs hide behind a "complex network of shell companies, often based in offshore financial centres", using bogus documents and convoluted paper trails to bamboozle customs officials, the report says. Free trade zones, such as Jebel Ali, which is home to more than 6,000 firms and accounts for a quarter of Dubai's GDP, are exploited by "criminals to conceal the origin of their products by repacking or even rebranding cigarettes", it adds.

Mr Costa could not put a figure on how much bootleg tobacco and medications pass through Jebel Ali's free zone, which employs one in seven of Dubai's workers, but called for tougher policing to tackle the smuggling threat. His Vienna-based anti-crime agency is working with the Government to boost security at borders, ports and airports. It is also lobbying for the use of hi-tech systems that use shipping logs to identify suspect container units.

The most recent UNODC report follows the release last month of the agency's global anti-drugs yearbook, which warned that the UAE was becoming a destination and trafficking post for illegal drugs, notably heroin and amphetamines. In an interview after the release of the yearbook, Mr al Marri said there was little communication between the UNODC and the UAE authorities, and international agencies needed to work more closely with local law enforcement agencies, rather than criticise from afar.

"The way forward is sitting together and closing the gaps, not by pointing fingers at each other," he said. jreinl@thenational.ae