Qatar 2019 and 2022: Human Trafficking in Disguise?

Plamena Solakova

The Qatar 2022 logo. Available on WIki Commons.

The Qatar 2022 logo. Photo Source: WIkimedia Commons.

The first internationally accepted definition of trafficking in human beings (THB) was introduced at the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, in the year 2000 in Palermo, Italy. Article 3 of the Protocol defines Human Trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or position of vulnerability, giving or receiving payments or benefits to achieve consent of a person, having control of another, for the purpose of exploitation”. In the same article, exploitation is referred to sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs.

Very often however, we tend to associate trafficking with sex exploitation only and in certain regions of the world, labour exploitation is treated as entirely separate issue than trafficking. One such region is the Middle East. There, the deep connection between labour exploitation and enslavement with trafficking across and within borders, is often ignored or even denied. In Qatar, a country-case study chosen due to its hosting of the 2019 World Athletics Championships and the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the situation appears ever more serious – why and what is being done about it, follows.

Qatar is a destination state for human trafficking victims from Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (amongst others) who are exploited predominantly for labour, as well as exploiting children for camel jockeying (US Department of State, 2014). Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable due to lack of legal protection, and in many cases runaway servants become prostitutes either voluntarily (to pay their bills and remain in the country albeit on the black market), or forcefully (by visa traders who coerce them into trading their bodies for money).

In recent years, the government has convicted some individuals for coerced prostitution under the penal code and for forced prostitution; it has also fined sponsors at times for withholding passports, convicted locals for visa selling (40 conviction cases in 2013), doubled its labour inspectors numbers (from 150 in 2012 to 300 in 2013), closed some recruitment firms with suspicious treatment of migrant workers, and regularly conducted anti-trafficking awareness campaigns (ibid). In regards to the treatment of victims however, the Qatari government consistently fails to protect and integrate them. The authorities instead choose the easier option of arresting and deporting potential trafficking victims for immigration violations. Their right to access to justice is also prohibited as was the case in 2014 when 120 bus drivers went on strike demanding better wages, but were instead condemned and 10 of those workers were even sued for organising the strike. In another incident, Doha News reported in June 2014 an attack by security guards onto construction workers at Sheraton Hotel in the Qatari capital for attempting to take a rest break. The workers were beaten by the armed guards, but were meanwhile blamed for “rioting.” Workers reported that “guards would not allow them to step out of line while going on their lunch breaks to use the bathroom and grab a drink of water”, which serves as evidence of both the strict rules but also of the lack of consideration and tolerance to migrants.

Camel jockeying is yet another very controversial practice in the Gulf, especially in Qatar, as the jockeys are often underage children (usually boys). In the case of Qatar, most of the children enter from Sudan and they are either sold by desperate, poverty-stricken parents, or kidnapped by employment agents and trafficked into the country. Very often the boys are under-nourished in order to keep their weight down on top of the camel. They are also in great physical danger as they are strapped to the camels during the race and there have been incidents of crushed to death kids if they fall off the animals. Bleedings and constant back pressure may also lead to smashing of the genitals and becoming impotent. If a boy is no longer fit to race, he is usually abandoned, with no paper or legal/ social protection. Qatar had attempted to address the issue as early as 2002 by banning the use of children as jockeys, but human rights campaigners warned that “illicit late-night races with boys as young as four strapped to the camels’ backs” were still taking place (Mackey, 2005). A solution to the problem has been the introduction of robot jockeys in recent years, with light weight and flexible movements, remote control and advancements like heart-rate monitoring and GPS tracing. Ideally, hope is that children will no longer be used by the camel race industry and the overall trafficking levels in the country will drop down.

Throughout 2013 and 2014, the world saw increased investigations and reporting on Qatar’s human rights abuses and labour exploitation in light of the upcoming 2019 World Athletics Championships and 2022 World Cup hosting. US State Department officials claimed last summer that “The Guardian, as well as the International Trade Union Confederation, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch all shed light on the vulnerability of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Qatar. In Qatar we see a dramatic reliance on foreign labour – yet, even though there are legal structures in place to protect [migrant workers], these seem to exist largely on paper”. Indeed, the reputable Qatar Foundation and the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee have both already issued “mandatory workers’ labor rights standards for all their construction and service delivery contracts” (USDS, 2014). These standards are legally binding and stricter than Qatari labor law, including the ban on recruitment fees at any stage in the recruitment process, the set up of hotlines for workers’ complaints, and independent auditing to ensure contractual compliance and that employees are paid on time (ibid). In reality though, despite the heart-warming promises of the government and the commitment to improve working conditions, a shocking statistic of one Nepalese construction worker dying every two days in 2014 was revealed in December 2014.

One major problem is the belief at the higher levels of governance in Qatar that human trafficking does not equal labour exploitation and as such, reluctance to prosecute offenders under the 2011 anti-trafficking law exists (USDS, 2014). This law in theory includes the criminalization of all the practices covered by the definition of trafficking in persons contained in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, as well as aiming to ensure the protection of victims and witnesses. The Qatari government prides itself in applying “the principle of non-criminalization of victims”. They also introduced a national action plan to combat THB for the years 2010 to 2015, which include a series of legislative measures, awareness and research, and capacity building procedures (ibid). With all its good intentions at heart however, the government last year did not prosecute or convict any trafficking offenders under the 2011 anti-trafficking law, or sufficiently enforce the sponsorship law that provides sanctions for employers who withhold workers’ wages and passports, nor has it reformed its restrictive labour management system – kafala. The latter is an arrangement which requires a local sponsor for any foreign worker and it severely limits freedom of movement and labour and grants a large degree of control over potential trafficking victims. Entry and exit into the country are dependent on local sponsors, so is the change of employment which requires a No-Objections Certificate from the current employer. Human Rights Watch further reports that “there are also concerns over the arbitrary manner in which Qatar imposes indefinite travel bans against individuals accused of criminal or civil offences by their employers”. There have been promises for reform of the system, including employment contract usage, automatic bank payments of wages (could then be monitored and controlled), scrapping the NOC requirement, and allowing for exit without employer’s permission. In the words of Qatar 2022 organisers however, “just like any other country in the world when you change a law it takes time” and as such the world will remain awaiting for the actual implementation of the reform plans (Dorsey, 2015).

Finally, one last bit of emphasis shall be placed on the 2019 and 2022 hosting of Qatar of international sporting events: it is not merely the faith of the construction workers which is at the spotlight at present, but also the general concern that the events may lead to an increase in human trafficking levels overall. For example, the short-term increased demand for prostitution may mean increased supply of sex trafficking, in addition to existing labour trafficking and exploitation (in construction). Furthermore, trafficked individuals may be occluded by the ‘easy entry’ of international citizens as ‘visitors’ into the host state. Previously, in Germany in 2006 it was argued that the World Cup brought in up to 40,000 trafficked women from abroad to meet the immediate demand for sexual services (UNGIFT, 2012). While these numbers have not been verified, and the cost-benefit analysis of traffickers probably suggests reduced profits due to the short duration of the events, it may be argued that campaigns against THB and increased law enforcement could only be useful – both before, during and after the championships. The Qataris certainly recognise the importance of 2019 and 2022 to their international image and we could only hope they will take actual steps to protect their citizens and visitors and actively fight trafficking prior and after the events themselves.

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