15 September 2005

Sigma Huda, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, made the following statement to media in Beirut today at the end of a visit to Lebanon:

Permit me first of all to thank the Government for inviting me to Lebanon. I would also like to commend the Government for the openness and cooperation it has demonstrated in the course of my nine-day fact-finding mission to Lebanon. I have been granted access to all state facilities I had requested to visit, including a prison, a juvenile correctional facility and a detention centre. In addition, I had the chance to consult with senior government officials, members of the judiciary, senior diplomats, United Nations officials as well as representatives of non-governmental organisations and civil society. I would like to thank everybody for taking the time to meet with me and candidly discuss the human trafficking situation in Lebanon.

In simplifying an internationally accepted definition of human trafficking, one can say that a person is trafficked if he, or more typically, she is brought into a situation of economic or sexual exploitation – including prostitution – by force, coercion, abduction, fraud or deception. I would like to clarify that a person can be trafficked across an international border even if he or she holds a valid visa. There can also be human trafficking within one and the same country. My mandate as Special Rapporteur aims to protect the human rights of trafficked persons, while preventing that other human beings fall victim to a crime that is unfortunately also prevalent in Lebanon. The issue of demand for all forms of exploitation and the push- and pull-factors relating to exploitation are also concerns covered by my mandate.

I am pleased to note that the Government appears to have recognized human trafficking as a problem. The new Cabinet has made reference to the issue in its first Ministerial Declaration. In August, the National Assembly ratified the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons. This important international treaty obliges Lebanon to criminalize all acts of trafficking, to adopt comprehensive measures and policies to prevent trafficking and to extend protection and assistance to trafficked persons.

Much remains to be done for the Government to implement Lebanon’s international obligations related to human trafficking. A number of domestic laws procedures and policies have to be brought in conformity with international norms and standards. In July 2005, the Ministries of Justice and Interior commenced a project of technical cooperation with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and UNICEF to assess the trafficking situation in Lebanon and review existing legislation. I hope that this important project will be a first step towards creating a comprehensive, effective, and human rights-based national action plan on human trafficking.

In the course of my mission, I have found that a significant number of human beings, women in the majority, are trafficked into and within Lebanon. Unfortunately, their plight seems to remain unknown to significant parts of Lebanese society, perhaps because the victims tend to be foreign nationals or are considered to be of low social status. Lebanon’s victims of trafficking are often invisible victims because they suffer in places that remain hidden to the public eye such as private homes or hotel rooms. Many of my interlocutors, including senior government officials, also acknowledged that widely held attitudes of discrimination on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity, and gender contribute to the prevalence of human trafficking. Social and cultural taboos preventing public discussion of issues related to sexual exploitation are also a factor.

I am particularly concerned that a significant number among the approximately 150,000-200,000 domestic migrant workers in Lebanon have become victims of human trafficking. Many persons from Asia or Africa, women mainly, travel to a foreign country and culture in order to make a living for themselves and earn money to send to the families and loved ones they leave thousands of kilometres behind. The basic human rights of these domestic migrant workers remain inadequately protected by the laws and authorities of Lebanon, not least since domestic workers remain specifically excluded from the protection of the 1946 Labour Code and do not have access to the labour courts. Instead, it is largely left up to the benevolence and human compassion of the employers, whether their human rights are upheld or not. For this reason, I have been very encouraged to hear from the Minister of Labour that he intends to present legislation on domestic migrant workers within one month from now. I am hopeful that this will also be of great help to prevent trafficking and exploitation.

Many families – a majority I would hope – respect the dignity and human rights of their domestic workers. Some even come to treat their domestic migrant workers like members of their own families. However, other domestic workers are less fortunate and treated like mere objects. Having signed one contract within an overseas employment agency in their country of origin, these migrants are upon arrival in Lebanon deceived or forced into signing a second, markedly more disadvantageous contract that is drafted in Arabic, a language they do not understand. It is this second contract that is considered valid and binding by Lebanese authorities. 16 hour working days - seven days a week, and the withholding of wages are not uncommon. Some employers uphold such exploitative situations by locking domestic migrant workers in the house, confiscating their passports and depriving them of access to basic means of communication such as the telephone or mail. Physical abuse is also a problem. One survey brought to my attention found that at least one out of every three Lebanese employers beats his or her domestic worker. Some victims also personally related incidents of severe and traumatic sexual abuse to me.

In cases in which domestic migrant workers denounce abuse or non-payment of wages to the authorities, their employers sometimes react by making counter-accusations of theft against the worker. Several victims of such accusations told me that they were unable to properly defend themselves in court against such accusations, since an interpreter for their mother tongue was not available.

Applicable international standards oblige Lebanon to identify and treat victims of human trafficking as victims. However, domestic workers who flee situations of exploitation and abuse are frequently re-victimized. Their cases often fail to be investigated with due diligence by the authorities and the victims are considered to be irregular migrants whose visas lapsed once they fled from exploitative or abusive employers. In many cases these victims end up in a detention centre before being deported, while the perpetrators enjoy impunity. I have personally inspected the largest of these detention centres, namely the Detention Centre of the General Directorate of the General Security at Adlieh. I note with great concern that the inhumane and appalling conditions in this underground centre as well as the treatment of detainees fall far short of what is required by applicable international human rights law. There is an urgent need to relocate this detention centre to a more suitable location and independent oversight over its operation must be assured.

As a positive development, I would like to mention the creation of a safe house for abused and exploited domestic migrant workers, which is operated by two non-governmental organisations on the basis of an agreement with General Security. In view of the magnitude of the problem the Government needs to assure that more such safe houses are created. With regard to the protection of foreign trafficked persons, I would like to call upon the consulates of sending countries to follow the positive example of countries such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka and protect the human rights of their nationals through comprehensive protection programmes.

Regarding immigration policy, there seems to be a need for Parliament to reassert its authority as the primary legislative organ in a democratic society and to strengthen its oversight role. Many key norms governing the status of domestic migrant workers appear to be no more than administrative instructions issued by a Director-General of General Security. Some of these norms are deeply problematic from a human rights perspective. A domestic migrant worker is, for example, prohibited from getting married during her stay in Lebanon.

Similar administrative instructions of General Security regulate the rights and obligations of a group of women, who come mainly from Eastern Europe. Entering with so-called “artist”-visas, they actually end up prostituting themselves in the commercial sex industry. I am concerned that some of these “artists” are deceived prior to their departure for Lebanon about the type or conditions of the activity they eventually have to engage in. Reports also suggest that a number of women find themselves in situations of debt bondage once they arrive in Lebanon. The vulnerability is exacerbated by the fact that the Lebanese Penal Code criminalizes prostitution. A woman engaging in acts of prostitution may be subject to prosecution, detention and deportation. At the same time, the persons who operate the “super night clubs,” to which the women are brought to find their clients, are operating legally according to the administrative rules set by General Security. This double standard increases the vulnerability of women who were forced into prostitution since they face the risk of criminal proceedings, while their traffickers can cloak themselves into a suit of legality.

Finally, I would like to express specific concern about various forms of child trafficking that exist in Lebanon. These include situations in which young children, particularly street children, are exploited as child beggars by organized gangs. I have also come to know of cases, in which girls where forced to prostitute themselves by their own parents. Some sources have also suggested that organized criminal groups are involved in the trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.

I have also found cases, in which underage girls were forced into early marriages in exchange for payments to the girl’s family. Apparently these practices not only endure in some rural areas of Lebanon. Foreign underage girls of Lebanese descent are sometimes also trafficked to Lebanon with the intent of forcing them to marry local men.

Biographical Note:
Sigma Huda is a lawyer and human rights defender in Bangladesh. She has been serving as the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons since October 2004. In this capacity, she has visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in February 2005. In 2006, she plans to visit other countries in the Arab region as well as Japan.