By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent
This past month the US State Department released itâ€™s 9th annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which lambasted 4 Middle Eastern countries for their blatant human rights abuses. Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria have found themselves strange bedfellows on Americaâ€™s â€˜blacklistâ€™, which means that unless these governments change their domestic policies to meet the minimum criteria for human rights they face a slew of sanctions.
According to the report, the global economic turndown has fueled the flames of an already exasperating situation. As a result, many traffickers in the Gulf region have moved underground to avoid detection and continue the slave trade. Itâ€™s no secret that the construction boom that has heralded many countries of the Middle East into a new modern age has been built with the blood, sweat and backbreaking work of poor migrant workers primarily from Southeast Asia. The sex industry is also flourishing in the Middle East, especially in Iran where â€˜temporaryâ€™ marriages are legal and women are exploited by being denied the rights that a married woman possesses. Underground prostitution rings are present in all four of the blacklisted countries. Visa trading is also a major problem as migrant workers are lured to the Gulf with the promise of high salaries and a better life. However, once they arrive they soon learn that they are only paid a fraction of the salary that they were promised and are forced to live in deplorable conditions not fit for an animal let alone a human being.
This week the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia set itself apart from the other countries on the blacklist. The Saudi government has toughened its stance against human traffickers within its borders. New laws recently put into effect will punish traffickers with up to 15 years in prison and fine of more than one-quarter of a million dollars.
Saudi Arabia has long been fodder for critics accusing the kingdom of ignoring human rights abuses that are often well publicized in the media, but routinely ignored by the ruling government. The kingdom has also clearly defined, in writing, what constitutes human trafficking in the country. Sexual servitude and slavery, forced organ donations or forced medical experimenting and involuntary begging are all instances of trafficking under the new law, which metes out harsher punishments based on the victim of the crime. If the victim is disabled, a woman, child or elderly then the penalty is substantially increased. However, many critics still lament the fact that the definition does not better define the trafficking of children into the kingdom who are forced to work as sex slaves, beggars or street vendors. The new law also makes zero reference to women and children who are exploited or abused within their own family unit.
Following the cabinet meeting that signed the new law into action, the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz was quoted as saying about the new law, â€œIt embodies the principles of Islamic Sharia law which prohibit attacks on the rights of another human being to protect the rights of citizens and residents under Islamic law.â€
The remaining three countries have done little to improve their human rights records since inclusion at the top of the list of human rights abuses. Kuwait, for example, does have a set of laws to defeat human trafficking within the tiny Gulf state. Unfortunately, the laws are difficult to enforce when so many citizens have influence to bend the laws in their favor. The phenomenon of â€˜wastaâ€™, or friends in high places, is too often the grease that moves the cogs of society no matter who gets hurt in the process.