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.