7 November 2006

Sigma Huda, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, made the following statement to media today in Muscat, at the end of her visit to Oman:

“Permit me first of all to thank the Government for inviting me to Oman. I am honoured to be the first Special Rapporteur to be able to visit this country and hope that this will be the first step in a continued fruitful cooperation between Oman and the United Nations Special Rapporteurs and other mechanisms of the Human Rights Council.

I would also like to thank the Government for the cooperation it has extended to me in the course of my five-day fact-finding mission to Oman. Although I had the chance to consult with some senior government officials, senior diplomats, United Nations officials as well as representatives of civil society and victims themselves, I regret that I was unable to meet additional relevant government officials and to visit detention centres/prisons where migrant workers are held before deportation.

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 other human beings from falling victims to this crime. 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, following its accession in 2005 to the Palermo Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, the Government has established a technical committee to review all related legislation, assess outstanding needs and propose measures to incorporate the provisions of the Protocol into domestic law and implement them fully. I hope that the Government will promptly finalize this study and take those steps that are necessary to bring legislation into conformity with international standards for the protection of victims of trafficking and ensure that they are effectively implemented. I also welcome the fact that the legislative framework provides for detailed and comprehensive labour standards for all workers, including foreign domestic workers, which will hopefully be widely disseminated to the public through media and other forms.

Yet much remains to be done for the Government to implement Oman’s international obligations related to human trafficking. In the course of my mission, I have found that a number of human beings, including women, travel to Oman 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. Some of these migrant workers are often lured in their country of origin by unscrupulous recruiting agents with false promises of a certain job or certain working conditions. More often than not they are shocked to find themselves in exploitative situations upon arrival. I received reports that casual labourers are one of the most disadvantaged groups as their supposed relations with sponsors are fictitious, thus increasing their vulnerability to abuse. These workers also become trapped in a spiral of debt both in their countries of origin where they sold their land and assets to pay brokers and recruiting agencies and in the countries of destination where in case of breaches of immigration and labour laws they must pay fines if they wish to return home. The authorities of both sending and receiving countries have the responsibility to identify, prosecute and punish those unscrupulous recruiting agencies.

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 are subject to degrading conditions. Long working hours – lack of sleep and rest, and the withholding or delay in the payment of wages are not uncommon complaints. Some employers also confine 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. I was also told of instances of physical, mental and verbal abuse.

Unfortunately, the plight of these migrant workers seems to remain unknown, perhaps because the victims tend to be foreign nationals or are considered to be of low social status. Victims of trafficking are often invisible victims because they suffer in places that remain hidden to the public eye, such as private homes, hotel rooms or labour camps. I am concerned at those reports, brought to my attention during this mission, of an extensive sweep of arrest of foreign workers which took place over this summer and was aimed at identifying those without valid documents and deporting them back to their countries of origin. It appears that foreign workers with valid documents were also rounded up and detained. In addition, living conditions in the camps where these workers were held were reportedly harsh.

Whilst noting that judicial mechanisms and procedures exist to settle labour disputes, access to justice for domestic and other migrant workers with complaints of abuse and maltreatment remains inadequate as victims feel intimidated to pursue criminal and labour cases and judgments are not systematically enforced. I regret that I was not given an opportunity to discuss more in depth the issue of access to justice for all with the relevant authorities and the judiciary.

Applicable international standards oblige Oman 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 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 detention centres or prisons before being deported, while the perpetrators enjoy impunity. In this regard I would like to encourage the Government to consider the possibility of creating shelters that could accommodate safely victims of abuse and exploitation including domestic migrant workers, following the examples of other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. With regard to the protection of foreign migrant workers including trafficked persons, I would also like to call upon the authorities of sending countries, including embassies and consulates, to build on the good practices in terms of comprehensive protection programmes that are already in place for some groups such as for example the Philipino migrant workers. In this regard, it was also reported that there are no uniform standards of minimum wages and certain embassies or consular offices have taken on themselves to establish such standards. Cooperation and coordination among embassies and consulates of the countries of origin could be further strengthened in order to ensure that there are no gaps in the protection of victims of abuse and exploitation.

I am also concerned about the reports that I received during this mission of women from Central and Eastern Asia, former CIS and Arab countries who, after entering the country through legal channels, end up in prostitution, a fact that is not yet sufficiently acknowledged by the authorities. Some of these women may be deceived prior to their departure for Oman about the type or conditions of the activity they eventually have to engage in but circumstances may not allow them to seek protection.

I welcome the initiative taken by the Member States of the Gulf Cooperation Council to develop guidelines to combat trafficking in human beings which has to be tackled at a regional level too. I renew my offer to provide inputs particularly on aspects related to the human rights and protection of victims during the drafting stage of these guidelines.

In my public report I will offer the Government some recommendations which will be aimed at eliminating trafficking in persons and enhancing the protection of the human rights of the victims. I hope that national authorities, the international community as well as civil society can continue to work together towards this end”.

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 and Lebanon in 2006. She is currently travelling in the three Gulf States of Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.

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