• The Gender Security Project

Forced labour and sexual enslavement of migrants in the Middle East

By Rasika Sundaram

A child labourer works the fields of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley © Tabitha Ross/ILO

The term “forced labour” refers to an individual unwillingly conforming to certain jobs and services due to threats of punishment communicated by an authoritative figure (Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, n.d.). The phrase “sexual enslavement” denotes imposing one’s authority on another by forcing or coercing the individual to engage in sexual activity. It involves victims having reduced power to make decisions or gain control over the forms of sexual activity they engage in (Sexual Slavery, 2021; Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, 2017). Forced labour and sexual enslavement are common forms of human trafficking. Although both activities are illegal in the Middle East, forced labour and sexual enslavement continue to exist in these regions and immigrant women become easy targets for traffickers (Human Trafficking in the Middle East, 2020).

In 2019, the UN news reported forced labour dealings as the most popular form of human trafficking in the Middle East (Human Trafficking Cases Hit a 13-year Record High, New UN Report Shows, 2019). In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created an enabling environment for forced labour and sexual exploitation to burgeon, even as immigrant workers were more likely to be trapped abroad with an uncertain legal status, no access to health care, limited or no income, and increased debts, consequently, increasing the likelihood of these workers being maltreated by exploitative employers (Covid-19 Migrant Labour and the Case for Recruitment Reform, 2020).

The presence of a nexus between overseas citizens and Middle Eastern employers:

Countries in the Middle East follow the kafala system, an arrangement that allows employers or sponsors in the Middle East to pay agents and private agencies in other countries for recruiting domestic workers (Manseau, 2006). Agents from these private agencies hunt and target individuals, mostly women from vulnerable populations. This includes people who are uneducated and poor, belonging to ethnic minorities or scheduled castes. Agents entice these social groups through false promises of better wages or an improved lifestyle once they find a job in a Middle Eastern country.

Tempted by these deceptive assurances, women migrate for employment and are consequently sucked into an inescapable network where they are sold, abused, and forced to comply to odd jobs to pay off large debts (Covid-19 Migrant Labour and the Case for Recruitment Reform, 2020; Nitin, 2018). Moreover, The kafala system terms migrant domestic workers as ‘workers by contract’. The contract signed by the employee is either ambiguously termed or can be construed in numerous ways in the Middle East. In certain cases, contracts are communicated verbally to the employee, increasing the ambiguity of the agreement. Since the targeted employees are uneducated, they neither understand the contents of the contract, nor do they ask for information to be clarified. Legal contracts that protect the individual’s human rights and are signed at the employee’s native country are confiscated upon arrival at the destination (Manseau, 2006).

Women who fall prey to sexual enslavement have a greater probability of being transported through routes that have less border control, frequently by sea or cross-country routes (Human Trafficking, 2020). Recruiters in the Middle East implement four methods to acquire sex slaves from foreign countries. The first method involves targeting women who voluntarily arrive to the Middle East as a domestic worker. Men in the guise of a boyfriend or acquaintance provide mendacious promises of love or better employment elsewhere, guiding the migrant to quit her job. In due course, she is sold off as a sex slave by the boyfriend or acquaintance. The second approach includes kidnapping, selling and sexually exploiting newly landed immigrant women in private villas or isolated apartments. Third, foreign workers are recruited as “artists” under the pretext that their work entails being a dancer or singer at bars or nightclubs. Eventually they are forced to engage in sexual relations with customers. Finally, women are at times deceived by family members who convince the individual to move to the Middle East for a better lifestyle and employment opportunities. Eventually, the immigrant is threatened and sexually exploited at the journey's end (Harroff-Tavel & Nasri, 2013).

Targeting migrant women in forced labour and sexual slavery:

Women are major victims of forced labour and sexual slavery (Human Trafficking Cases Hit a 13-year Record High, New UN Report Shows, 2019). Job descriptions for female foreign domestic workers entail childcare and tending to the elderly. However, these women are forced to do additional labour with long working hours, no holidays, and minimal remunerations. Workers do not receive the specified wage amount as a large sum goes to the agents who make arrangements for women to work abroad. Furthermore, salary amounts are fixed based on the workers ethnicity or country of origin, alluding to the practice of xenophobic behavior by employers (Manseau, 2006). These workers are not provided with an appropriate living space and are told to occupy the kitchen, sofa, etc. at night (Harroff-Tavel & Nasri, 2013). Movement is strictly restricted and cannot occur without the employer’s permission. Workers are not allowed to contact their friends and family creating sentiments of seclusion and fear (Manseau, 2006). These feelings are reinforced as the individuals passport, personal documents, and wages are withheld; hence preventing the possibility of escape (Harroff-Tavel & Nasri, 2013).

Most female migrant workers cited sexual, physical, verbal, and psychological abuse by male employers. These violations involved rape, sadistic torture, kicking, beating, starvation, burning, acid attacks, use of threats, etc. (Manseau, 2006). The risk of receiving these abuses is heightened for these workers as they are not in contact with an acquaintance or family member and there are no regular inspections done by social workers or inspectors in these regions. Employers who perpetrate these exploitations easily cite the terms of the kafala system, which provide support for their actions against women migrant workers (Harroff-Tavel & Nasri, 2013).

Immigrant women who are coerced or tricked into becoming sex workers are at risk of being extradited or arrested as commercial sex jobs are banned. They face a double threat of not gaining employment in other sectors due to legal and cultural impediments. They endure similar human right abuses as forced labourers, comprising physical imprisonment, denial of wages or receiving minimal fees for large amounts of work, threats of judicial imprisonment, murder threats to the individual or her family members, and physical, sexual and psyhcological abuse (Harroff-Tavel & Nasri, 2013).

Lack of governmental response and support:

Employers use coercive and abusive tactics to force migrant workers to continue working under them (Harroff-Tavel & Nasri, 2013). In response to this, countries in the Middle East have put legal frameworks in place to curtail the process of forced labour and sexual enslavement. In compliance with the International Labour Organization and Palermo Protocol, all Middle Eastern countries have implemented legislations that state human trafficking as a criminal offence. These agendas include indicting offenders who engage in human trafficking with various terms of imprisonment and/or fines. The Arab League prohibits all forms of human trafficking and has established a unit that tracks the status of human trafficking in Arab countries (Harroff-Tavel & Nasri, 2013).

However, host countries in the Middle East profit from exploiting workers to the maximum and reimbursing them with minimal wages. The workers native country also profits from the individuals allowances. These circumstances could be reinforcing factors for the insufficient implementation of laws and inadequate support and remedial action being taken by relevant agencies, embassies, and governmental authorities. In fact, migrant workers who accomplish reaching out to the embassy for assistance are unable to leave due to lack of financial aid and those who escape the country are subjected to arrest. National and international governments are yet to clearly address the occupational status of migrant workers (Harroff-Tavel & Nasri, 2013; Manseau, 2006). Evidently, greater political and civil reforms need to be achieved to improve the condition of forced migrant labourers and sex slaves in the Middle East (The UAE’s Kafala System: Harmless or Human Trafficking, 2020).


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