United Arab Emirates: UN expert urges further action to protect victims of trafficking

ABU DHABI, 17 April 2012

“The United Arab Emirates must be commended for its strong commitment to combat trafficking in persons both at the domestic level and in the Gulf region; however it needs to devote greater attention to identification of countless victims of all forms of trafficking and guarantee their right to effective remedy”

Following an invitation by the Government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I conducted an official visit to the UAE from 11 to 17 April 2012 to investigate the situation of trafficking in persons, progress made and remaining challenges in combating this phenomenon of modern day slavery.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Government for accommodating this visit, which enabled me to obtain information regarding the current legislative framework and institutional programmes in place to tackle the phenomenon of human trafficking. The very fact that the Government welcomed my visit demonstrates the sincerity of its efforts to combat trafficking in persons.

During this official mission, I visited Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah; I met with a number of Federal and Emirate level government officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Labour, Interior, Justice, Social Affairs, and various other departments and agencies, including the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, the Judicial Department, Public Prosecution and the Police. More importantly, I met with victims themselves, including foreign workers at labour camps. I also visited the Ewa’a shelters in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah and the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.

The UAE has demonstrated strong leadership to combating trafficking in persons in the region and its commitment in this regard, as reflected by the ratification of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol), and other relevant human rights instruments including the United Nations Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and on the Rights of the Child (CRC), is indeed appreciable.

The Government has undoubtedly made significant progress in its efforts to address trafficking in persons in the country, particularly since the enactment in 2006 of the Federal Law No. 51 on Combating Human Trafficking Crimes. This Law encompasses the definition of trafficking in persons provided under the Palermo Protocol and penalizes all forms of trafficking in persons. Additionally, the establishment by the same law of a National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT) that provides a forum for different government departments and stakeholders to come together to discuss various policies and practices put in place by each of them to fight against trafficking in persons, is indeed commendable.

At the emirate level, the work undertaken by the Dubai Police, and particularly the Human Trafficking Crimes Control Center, in combating human trafficking is also laudable. The research and analysis carried out by this specialized unit as well as its victim support programmes demonstrate that it is a strong and committed unit within the Dubai Police, devoted to the issue of trafficking. I believe that the level of expertise similar to that of Dubai Police in combating trafficking in persons should be achieved by the police as well as other departments fighting against human trafficking in the other emirates.

I also welcome the creation, within the Ministry of Labour, of an anti-human trafficking unit to coordinate with other competent authorities and raise awareness of its labour inspectors on specialized inspection capability and identification of human trafficking cases. I am further pleased to note that the Wage Protection System is now bearing its fruits with regards to the timely payment of wages for the large number of foreign workers, who make up almost 80 per cent of the population in the country. Though many of the workers I interviewed informed me about the very low wages they receive and the harsh conditions under which they are required to work and live.

I also learnt of the steps taken by the Government in terms of international cooperation with neighbouring countries to combat the trafficking phenomenon in the region, particularly within the framework of the Arab Initiative to Build National Capacities to Combat Human Trafficking. Furthermore, I commend the Government for entering into bilateral agreements with numerous countries of origin, transit and destination both for cooperation on human trafficking issues and for conducting training and capacity building activities in collaboration with the other countries as well as the United Nations, its Specialised Agencies and other international organizations.

However, despite these positive steps taken, I noted a number of challenges that must be addressed by the Government if it is to succeed in effectively combating trafficking in persons and protecting the human rights of trafficked victims.

The UAE is clearly a destination and transit country, with cities like Dubai having huge commercial potentials. People, among whom mainly low and semi-skilled workers from all over the world are attracted to coming in the country, which they see as one of the fastest growing countries in the region carrying with it enormous prospects and opportunities for work. As such this accounts for the influx of the large number of people in as well as those transiting the country on a daily basis. In the course of my visit, I met with victims trafficked from all regions, be it Asia, Africa, Europe or Latin America, which makes the uniqueness of the challenges faced by this country in combating this phenomenon. I also found that the most common forms of trafficking in the UAE are prevalent in sex trade and domestic work for women, and children in some cases, while for men, it is in the labour industry. Against this background, I encountered a number of issues of concerns during my mission in the UAE.

Given the ongoing and ever-growing economic development of the country, the UAE relies heavily on foreign labour, foreign workers making up more than 170 different nationalities in the UAE. This has led to creating a lucrative market for criminal involvement in the market of foreign workers and to increase the latter’s vulnerability to trafficking. For this reason, one of the major tasks of the UAE will be to reduce the vulnerability of foreign workers to human trafficking. True it is that the Ministry of Labour has signed bilateral agreements with a number of labour-sending countries and has put in place measures such as regular and unannounced inspection and monitoring in labour camps and places of work. However, much more remains to be done, especially in terms of safe and legal migration arrangements, to ensure that this high demand for cheap, low-skilled or semi-skilled foreign labour in the UAE in a wide range of sectors, such the construction industry and the services industry in general, including domestic workers, is not used as a channel for traffickers and agents to exploit the labour of these low skilled foreign workers.

Furthermore, although the Government has adopted legislation to combat human trafficking, significant gaps remain. As it stands, the Federal Law 51 does not cover in its ambit the cases of persons trafficked for all forms of labour exploitation, including domestic servitude. As such, despite the various efforts undertaken by the Government to sensitizing law enforcement officers on the issue of human trafficking, identification of victims, especially domestic workers trafficked for labour exploitation still remains non-existent and problematic. I therefore urge the Government to expand the definition of trafficking, to explicitly include labour exploitation, domestic servitude as well as other forms of trafficking such as forced and servile marriages.

During my visit, I have also noted that the collection of statistical information to determine the prevalence rate, forms, trends and manifestation of human trafficking in the UAE is not complete. This has led mainly to attention being focused almost exclusively on trafficking for sexual exploitation and contributed to the other forms of trafficking remaining invisible and unrecognized by not only the general population, but also the victims themselves and the competent authorities. There is therefore a need for improved understanding of the nature and scale of the problem of trafficking in persons in the UAE. The scale of the problem, especially as regards labour exploitation, appears to be underestimated, with most victims outside the sex industry remaining unidentified. Equal emphasis should be placed on all forms and manifestations of trafficking and exploitation, and the lack of regulations and labour rights should be addressed as one of the key structural factors fostering trafficking in persons, whether for sexual exploitation or forced labour or domestic servitude or other services.

It is indeed alarming that to date only one case of trafficking for forced labour has been referred to the court; while information gathered on the ground from interlocutors and workers in labour camps refer to increasing reports of exploitation of the low and semi-skilled foreign workers particularly in the sectors mentioned above. Hence, this lends further support to the conclusion that in fact trafficking in persons for labour exploitation is widespread in the UAE and victims of such form of trafficking remain unidentified and cases underreported. Any assistance, if at all, provided to the victims of such trafficking for forced labour remains largely at the mercy of a very few number of grassroots organizations and volunteers.

The current situation of migrant domestic workers is even worse than that of other foreign workers, given that the Labour Law expressly excludes domestic workers from its application. Hence, their fate is left entirely to the contractual relationship that binds them to their sponsors, leaving them without any protection whatsoever. I was nevertheless informed that the Ministry of Interior is currently drafting a law, which would focus on domestic workers and provide some kind of protection to them. I therefore urge the Government to consult all relevant stakeholders including civil society organizations and experts and consider their comments in drafting this law.

Another shortcoming of Federal Law 51 is that although it penalizes human trafficking, it does not include any provision for victims’ protection, assistance, recovery/rehabilitation or on their right to compensation. This absence of the right to an effective remedy undeniably places victims at an increased risk of falling once again into the hands of traffickers. However, I was informed that there is a proposal to amend this law, which is currently pending approval by the Federal National Council, and which includes provisions protecting the human rights of trafficked persons and addresses the issue of reparation for victims of trafficking. This amendment, if approved, will be an important step forward for the UAE, given that at present there is no national framework in the UAE for victim compensation and victim assistance does not go beyond the services and minimal financial aid provided by the non-governmental shelters to the victims. Adequate compensation for the violations of human rights, to which victims of trafficking are subjected, indeed goes a long way in helping them in their rehabilitation and reintegration into normal life.

While meeting with the various ministries and government authorities, I also noticed that there is a lack of coherence in the implementation of measures adopted to combat trafficking at the national level, since implementation varies not only from emirate to emirate but also between different line ministries, and different departments within an emirate. This fragmentation of policies and practices in the fight against human trafficking is due to the absence of a national plan of action for combating trafficking and a strategic framework for implementation containing clear and measurable indicators for outcome and impact. The Ministry of Interior, through its Anti-human trafficking unit, has certainly published a human trafficking guidance for its staff and divisions involved in combating trafficking in persons. However, this should be enhanced into a national framework and be replicated in all the concerned ministries and their respective departments in all the seven emirates to be used by front line law enforcement officers who are usually the points of first contact for the victims of trafficking.

Furthermore, I noted that prosecution of cases of trafficking in general remains low despite the scale of human trafficking in the UAE.

Finally, I remain concerned about the possibility of trafficked persons being arrested, detained for and being deported for having overstayed in the country or prosecuted for prostitution, which is a criminal offence in the UAE.

In view of the above observations and concerns I make the following as interim recommendations to the UAE:


  • Ensure full domestic application of the Palermo Protocol, which obliges the UAE to prevent and combat trafficking in persons and speed up the process of adopting the proposed review of the law that will expand the definition of trafficking offences to include all forms of trafficking and bring it in full compliance with the Protocol;
  • Undertake research in collaboration with independent research institutions and civil society organisations to collect credible data on the phenomenon of human trafficking in the UAE, including on trafficking for labour exploitation as well as other forms, trends and manifestations of trafficking, such as that for forced and servile marriages;
  • The Federal National Council to examine the proposed changes in Federal Law 51 against international standards on the right to effective remedy for victims of human trafficking and speed up the process of introducing the amendments in the law, ensuring consultation with all relevant stakeholders and experts, so that the final legislative amendments in Federal Law 51 provide the UAE with the strongest possible legal framework to investigate and prosecute trafficking in persons cases;
  • Consult with all relevant stakeholders and examine the new draft law on domestic workers against international standards, especially the 2011 ILO Convention no. 189 Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, to which the UAE is signatory, and speed up the process of enacting this law;
  • Strengthen the mandate of the NCCHT so that it becomes the central mechanism responsible for monitoring compliance with the federal anti-trafficking law and ensuring consistency in implementation of federal objectives;
  • Develop, after concerting with all stakeholders, a national plan of action that clearly identifies objectives, delineates responsibilities, and sets out clear indicators to measure progress and impact;


  • Strengthen systems and procedures for identifying victims of trafficking including through the training of law enforcement agencies especially officers of the Naturalization and Residency Department, the Police, and labour inspectors. Such training should seek to enhance their capacity to identify trafficked persons quickly and accurately and to make referrals to appropriate services;
  • Provide training for criminal justice officials including prosecutors and judges through continuing legal education to raise awareness about emerging trends of trafficking in persons, to ensure effective prosecution and punishment of criminals, and protect the rights of victims.


  • Strengthen and increase options for safe and legal migration, acknowledging that the current approach to migration management, especially the sponsorship system may favour the activities of smugglers and traffickers.


  • Protect and assist all victims of trafficking, including male victims, with full respect for their human rights, and include a human rights based approach in the investigation of cases of trafficking that requires the needs of all victims to be placed at the core of any response;
  • Make provision for appropriate support, including the establishment of shelters for male victims of labour exploitation as well as male victims of trafficking, in light of the prevalence of labour exploitation of men in the UAE.
  • Provide funding on a regular basis to service providers and civil society in order to enable the strengthening of the level of psychological support, training, rehabilitation and recovery efforts for victims as well as translation assistance and counselling services to trafficked persons including those who do not immediately wish their matter to come before the authorities or to be repatriated;
  • Maintain close cooperation with UNHCR and IOM for the safe return of trafficked victims in their country having due regard to the need, if any, of international protection of the victims;
  • Adopt measures to ensure that victims of trafficking with international protection needs are properly identified and referred to the asylum system, when appropriate;
  • Establish a comprehensive national compensation scheme for victims of trafficking at the Federal level and effectively apply the already existing provision in the law on confiscation of assets of traffickers and proceeds from trafficking-related crimes, ensuring that such funds are used additionally to compensate victims as well as for victim support and assistance.


  • Step up efforts to raise awareness about all forms of trafficking in persons, including for labour exploitation, among the general population in the UAE, in order to promote understanding of what constitutes trafficking;
  • Constantly monitor and evaluate prevention work programmes and policies to ensure that it is effective and non-stigmatizing and not contributing to unhelpful stereotyping of victims and their communities.


  • Increase efforts to prosecute traffickers whilst guaranteeing fair trial rights consistent with human rights based approach to criminal justice response;
  • Ensure that victims/witnesses are protected pre-trial, during and post-trial to avoid reprisal attacks.


  • Ratify, without delay, the UN Convention on the human rights of Migrant Workers and their families and the 2011 ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers;
  • Continue its leadership role in the Arab region and beyond in combating human trafficking, protecting the rights of foreign workers and their vulnerabilities to all forms of trafficking in persons;
  • Strengthen partnership with source countries in all regions, including Africa and Latin America, and extend cooperation for exchange of information and mutual legal assistance;
  • Provide some level of support in source countries to ensure prevention and awareness raising and establishment of policies, mechanisms and comparable implementation levels, as well as financial aid to create victim support funds in the less developed countries.

I thank the Government once more for the opportunity of this visit and for the willingness and openness shown by all stakeholders to contribute to its success. Human trafficking is a multidimensional phenomenon and we must all cooperate together and adopt a multisectoral and multidisciplinary approach to combat this evil and to better protect the human rights of trafficked persons. I am confident that the UAE can become a model for other countries in this region and beyond.

A full report of this mission will be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2013.

For the use of the media; not an official record.


Joy Ngozi Ezeilo assumed her functions as Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children on 1 August 2008. Ms. Ezeilo is a human rights lawyer and professor at the University of Nigeria. She has also served in various governmental capacities, including as Honourable Commissioner for Ministry of Women Affairs & Social Development in Enugu State and as a Delegate to the National Political Reform Conference. She has consulted for various international organizations and is also involved in several NGOs, particularly working on women’s rights. She has published extensively on a variety of topics, including human rights, women’s rights, and Sharia law. Ms. Ezeilo was conferred with a national honour (Officer of the Order of Nigeria) in 2006 for her work as a human rights defender.

Learn more about the mandate and activities of the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Trafficking/Pages/TraffickingIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Ramkaun Meena (Tel: +41 22 917 9707 / email: mramkaun@ohchr.org) or write to srtraffiking@ohchr.org.

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