Trafficking in persons, or human trafficking, is the second most lucrative illegal trade in the world today.
It was also one of the four main themes the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) addressed at our recent Middle East Conference (MEC) 2013 held on June 17-21, exploring the issue of human rights from both biblical and Islamic perspectives. We felt that the multi-faced practice of human trafficking was of such critical importance that we could not ignore it.

At MEC 2013, we explored issues related to the internal trafficking of children for labor in Lebanon, the trafficking of women to be abused within the Lebanese sex industry as well as the enormous issue of the trafficking of migrant domestic workers in and beyond Lebanon.

It is this final dimension of human trafficking to which I turn in this column.

Human trafficking has been defined by the U.S. State Department as: “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.”

I believe this definition applies to far too many migrant domestic workers living within Lebanon and the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Recently, a high profile case of alleged trafficking involving a Saudi princess was reported across the media. Meshael Alayban, 42, one of the wives of Saudi Prince Abdulrahman bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz, was arrested for human trafficking in Irvine, Calif.

It is alleged that in 2012 Alayban employed a Kenyan woman and brought her to Saudi Arabia for the purposes of carrying out domestic work.

The contract stated that the unnamed woman would receive $1,600 a month for working five eight-hour days per week. The reality was very different, as the Kenyan woman was forced to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and was paid only $220 per month since March 2012. This equates to less than 50 cents per hour.

Upon moving to southern California, the Kenyan woman was also forced to work in four different apartments in the building within which she was trapped.

Furthermore, the woman’s passport was taken by Alayban and only given back long enough for her to enter the U.S., when she, along with four other migrant women from the Philippines, arrived in May of this year.

In the U.S., the Kenyan woman managed to escape and flag down a bus on which she explained to a fellow passenger that she thought she might be a victim of human trafficking. The passenger helped her to alert the authorities and, as a result, police later raided Alayban’s building.

Following an investigation, Alayban was arrested and bail was set (and paid) at $5 million. Alayban was due back in court on July 18.

If, in due course, she is found guilty of human trafficking, she faces a maximum prison sentence of 12 years, thanks to new anti-trafficking legislation in California.

While this has become a high profile case and is no doubt shocking to many readers, the reality is that there will be many in my part of the world who will be scratching their heads and wondering what the big deal is.

This is an everyday reality for hundreds of thousands of women across the MENA region. The experience of the Kenyan woman is typical for far too many.

One difference, however, is the manner in which the Kenyan woman was treated once she escaped. Rather than being criminalized for “absconding without her travel documents,” she was protected by law and her employer has become the subject of investigation by the authorities.

Ghada Jabbour, head of the exploitation and trafficking in women unit at the Lebanese nongovernmental organization, “KAFA (Enough) Violence and Exploitation,” stated, in a personal interview that: “The mentality of owning the domestic worker exists throughout the Gulf and some Mashreq countries.

“This is exacerbated by the existence of the sponsorship system,” she said, “which puts the worker in a total dependency to her employer with regards to her legal status and in particular to her work and residency permits in the destination country.”

In much of the MENA region, if a migrant domestic worker manages to escape from an abusive home, they are unlikely to have their passports and, as such, will eventually be arrested, imprisoned or expelled from the country.

There is little or no protection under the current system to protect the victims of trafficking. In fact, the system virtually requires conditions comparable to the many definitions of human trafficking in existence.

For example, the U.N.’s Palermo Protocol describes a variety of different terms used for human trafficking, including: “involuntary [domestic] servitude,” “slavery or practices similar to slavery,” “debt bondage” and “forced labor.”

It is easy to find examples of each in Lebanon.

Arthur Brown is the assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on human trafficking. Brown’s second column will appear tomorrow.

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