Human Trafficking in the Middle East

Posted by Mark Lagon
November 20, 2008

About the Author: Ambassador Mark P. Lagon is Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

I have recently visited two major powers in the Middle East -- Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- quite different from one another in the context of trafficking in persons (TIP). I came away with striking impressions from my visits and dialogue.

There are some promising efforts in Egypt. Amendments to the child protection law last June define for the first time crimes of trafficking of children. This includes the most serious TIP vulnerability in Egypt: children (especially street children) exploited as domestic servants or in prostitution.

Since ratification of the UN TIP Protocol four years ago, discussion of crafting a comprehensive anti-human trafficking law has seemingly accelerated. The Egyptian anti-TIP interagency group (like the one I chair in the United States) is consulting with UN agencies on the law's content, and we hope it will cover internal, as well as transnational (e.g. through Egypt to Israel), TIP.

Notably, a rising generation of key government officials has a clear interest in fighting the gross exploitation which constitutes TIP.

Nonetheless, it was clear from our visit to Cairo that Egypt needs a system for identifying victims and for referring them to social services. Although drop-in centers for vulnerable street children exist, we hope the Government of Egypt and civil society will band together to make these centers safe havens for all children exposed to forced begging, sexual exploitation, and other harm on the streets.

Sexual exploitation of young people is taking some troubling forms in Egypt. We learned of Sudanese refugee girls and young women lured into prostitution by gangs. This is a sorry fate for those fleeing Sudan. Moreover, sex tourists are increasingly going to places like Luxor and Alexandria to abuse Egypt's young. I stressed how the United States has enacted and enforced laws to punish child sex tourists who commit crimes abroad, and is urging European nations to follow suit. One particular horror is Saudi and other Gulf visitors acquiring (and I use that word purposefully) youth brides in so-called "temporary marriages."

It was, in fact, the Gulf and Saudi Arabia which we flew to next. I had very direct dialogue with the Ministries of Interior, Labor, and Social Affairs, sharing our steady, though not perfect, experiences in confronting TIP at home.

The sponsorship system in Saudi Arabia -- tying migrant workers to a single employer -- is rife with vulnerability to human trafficking. This system, which is seen throughout the Gulf, is compounded in Saudi Arabia by the disproportionate power given to employers of housemaids, construction workers, and agricultural laborers in the form of exit permits. A migrant worker cannot leave the country without the okay of their "sponsor." This gives unscrupulous employers devastating leverage should they subject workers to abusive conditions or withhold their pay. We heard countless testimonials of this kind of abuse.

One potentially positive initiative is discussion of reforming this sponsorship system. We were told by senior officials of serious discussions to create large labor companies in the Saudi Kingdom to more flexibly manage the placement of workers. If adopted this could do much to reduce the vulnerability of migrant workers, and indeed offer momentum to similar changes throughout the smaller states of the Gulf.

We visited two shelters -- one run by the Ministry of Social Affairs and one by the Embassy of the Philippines. The contrast between the two was marked. The Government shelter is limited to serving female domestic workers who are not met by employers at the airport, as well as short-term guests near resolution of contract disputes in court. But there is no systematic or broad referral of victims to this shelter.

By contrast, the Philippines is as active on behalf of the welfare of its migrant workers in the Kingdom as it is worldwide. We met with housemaids compelled to flee employers. One woman was in two leg casts after leaping to escape from a window. We heard of employers' repeated violence, and the squeezing of every hour of the day and ounce of energy from these survivors. One such survivor described the brutality of the employer who kicked, pushed, and punched her for the slightest mistake. Facing years of court battles if they brought their cases to the court, many of these women opted dejectedly to simply return to the safety of their home countries.

The stories of these victims drove home the violence and desperation women and migrant workers face in Saudi Arabia and many other countries, at the hands of people who treat them as less than human. States must step up to the responsibility of protecting the helpless on their soil. The United States devotes diplomacy to this cause every day.



Syrian P.
November 21, 2008

SNP in Syria writes:

Keep up the good work. We appreciate the U.S. DOS efforts in taking a lead worldwide on human trafficking and Child Labor issues at least on diplomatic and legal front, it help bring awareness in other countries to the immorality of this trade and helps protect Children from abuse by the same racket. Consider using clandestine programs and means to track rings leaders and break down network efficiency, the more brought to prosecution the more culprits will evaluate the higher risks involved in dealing with these abnormal ways to earn money from Child sweat or women suffering. You can also establish a watch list similar to the U.S. Treasury lists and expose network operatives publicly so they can be tracked down and not walk freely in own country, this is a social stigma in many countries.

Linda Z.
California, USA
November 21, 2008

Linda in California writes:

Thank you for the insight and this resource.

Arizona, USA
November 22, 2008

Kurdo in Arizona writes:

Great job. I really love what you wrote about the system in Saudi Arabia. Let the people and the world know about what's going in Saudi Arabia. Thanks for your great efforts.

North Carolina, USA
November 22, 2008

Edie in North Carolina writes:

Although many women migrant workers in Jordan enjoy the opportunity to work and send money home, some are taken advantage of and abused. Below is link to Amnesty International report published in October on this issue:

'Isolated and abused: women migrant domestic workers in Jordan denied their rights'

November 23, 2008

John in Greece writes:

"Sheikh-oilers" have transformed Middle East and other places in Asia and Africa into the hugest bordello on earth, concerning human trafficking and prostitution.

I will attempt to say things politely, but cruel: the "street" way, according to Ericãs right definition of my usual thinking perspective path. However, things are simple and extremely clear, if we want to face the truth.

Some "ayatollahs", "sheikhs" and "desert oilers" believe that can buy anything, in the same way they think that we owe them everything, because some wells in the middle of nowhere are rich in oil, while they have nothing else at all. This is their life concept! And it's mixed with enough barrels of religious alibis that fits them in to live like Kings.

They cannot understand what Eric in NM said recently during a very different topic conversation. Eric's great phrase applies perfectly in this topic: these "guys" do not "realize that money isn't everything, and can't buy you happiness or security. However, they think they can!

I won't abuse your time. Here is my last thought: In a previous post, Kirk in KY talked about the "1000$ babes" prostitution channel. Come on Kirk, this is "cheap"! Be a real Middle East tipper!

All of us, EVERYBODY, know that these "guys" in the Middle East, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, etc. "buy" top models from Europe for 10,000$ to 30,000$ per (pair) night. Each one of them also has a couple of hundreds wives bought even more expensive. You see: Lifetime investments are expensive!

And the example of the "Kings" is culturally adopted by the "subjects" too. Of course in lower "tariffs" they can afford as simple citizens, due to the OPEC price evaluation, as the Kings say to the subjects: "you can only have two blonde models for today, because westerns do not pay enough for our black treasure". And then, they raise the oil price.

Just think of this last one and you will find out why oil sometimes becomes so expensive during "visitation" hours!

Nick E.
November 23, 2008

Nick writes:

Megan, Here is a blog post concerning human trafficking in Saudi Arabia from Mark Lagon, Director of Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the US State Dept.

Florida, USA
November 23, 2008

Susan in Florida writes:

@ Ambassador Mark Lagon -- Thank you, Mark, for yours and the State Departments efforts to bring attention to, and put a stop to, this horrific crime. I have worked with children, of all ages, all of my life. They are the most vulnerable individuals of all.

Connecticut, USA
November 23, 2008

Helen in Connecticut writes:

Great post. There should be more study on the link between migration and trafficking.

Alabama, USA
November 24, 2008

John in Alabama writes:

The Saudi's have sent 911 bombers against the USA and then held telethons to raise money for their efforts. Now, we are told the Saudi's are responsible for the worst kind of human bondage in the world and we continue to claim the Saudi's are friends of the USA. It would seem that the great Islamic nations are true hypocrits, esp. the Saudi princes and clerics. It is time for the USA to stand up to the true enemies of our great country. It is time for the news outlets to tell the truth about not only the Islamic nations but about the politicians in our country that cover for them.

Virginia, USA
November 24, 2008

Donald in Virginia writes:

24 Nov 08


I tried to portray what the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was about in a blog. When the entire Kingdom of Saudi Princes can do as they wish, because they have the money and the political power, what happens to the people of Arabia? They have no voice. They don't get a vote. They really can't speak their own mind on the issues. They could be punished if they did speak out.


I didn't see anyone mention blood money? If I recall they use this tactic when or if someone does get into trouble. A choice for the family to pay blood money, or beheaded if they did a serious crime.

Try living in one of these countries and see for yourself what it's all about. The King rules as the princes dictate and put into law what the people can do or not do in the public eye.

I think the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia needs to come out of the 14th Century and come into the 21th Century. They should offer "Freedom of Religon" and above all they should have a plan to counter act these human trafficers that can abuse kids.

I personally believe that the King of Arabia is a very respected King. However, the consequences of not allowing for certain things to happen, only makes things worst for his people. Checks and balances for protecting the rights of the kids!

Best Regards


Syrian P.
November 25, 2008

SNP in Syria writes:

@ John in Alabama, said --It would seem that the great Islamic nations are true hypocrites--

Of course they are, look at Islamic flag bearer Iran how it supports the House of Saud and all other like regimes in the Islamic World while they claim to strive for Justice among Moslems. It is way beyond shameless Hypocrisy, it is Lunacy.

@ Donald in Virginia, said --what happens to the people of Arabia?...........--

What happened Donald is they long ago surrendered to Islam, that is what this word means literally, surrender, not as they falsely proclaim that it means religion of peace, that is false, it is demand for surrender to the most hypocritical, archaic, anti human rights, viciously anti women, children and workers rights pagan religion ever invented by primitive man, or face the sword dude, literality. They still execute people for the most minor of offences by the sword, even rape victims. They even have not one but 2 swords on the flag. As you said Donald, VERY SAD INDEED. Who wants friends like that, would you invite them home, yet Moslem Hypocrites like Mottaki and Ahmadinejad see it fit to kiss hand and cheeks.

John B.
Massachusetts, USA
November 25, 2008

John in Massachusetts writes:

Thanks for taking the time to write this blog. It's a great tool for us to learn more and keep in touch with TIPs work.

California, USA
November 26, 2008

Bethany in California writes:

I am a 14 year old doing a project on Human Trafficking to expose the facts to my Honors Golobal Culture class. Thanks for this blog, it really has helped me, and thanks for all you're doing, this is a horrific rights abuse and should be stopped.


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