International attention toward the refugee crisis and illegal migration to Europe has overshadowed another persistent issue in the region: human trafficking and the exploitation of migrant workers.
A policy research report titled “The Other Migrant Crisis, Protecting Migrant Workers against Exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa” launched in Beirut Friday sought to turn some of that attention back to migrant workers.
Among the challenges facing the Middle East, according to the report, was the need to support over 4 million Syrian refugees, in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This was in addition to Iraqi refugees who had to flee from Daesh’s brutality, the report added.
The policy research paper was produced under the framework of International Organization for Migration’s Action to Protect and Assist Vulnerable and Exploited Migrant Workers in the Middle East and North Africa (PAVE Project) in partnership with the Walk Free Foundation. The project took place in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
A total 243 human trafficking victims were assisted by IOM, but the report analyzes 162 cases. Research was also conducted from roundtables held between governments and NGOs in Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Lebanon and Jordan.
“Within these refugees and IDP [internally displaced person] populations are many thousands of migrants who, already vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of their employers prior to the outbreak of conflict, are facing new risks to their safety, particularly vulnerability to human trafficking,” the report said.
The refugee influx has caused what the study’s authors referred to as “trifold effect.”
A rise in competition for low-paying jobs is the first level in this trifold, the study’s lead author Samantha McCormack, explained to The Daily Star on the sidelines. In Jordan, for example, laborers from Egypt dominate the agricultural sector.
“What we are seeing now is that Syrian refugees are competing for those roles and they are willing to work longer hours for less pay,” McCormack explained.
“So Egyptian workers who are already vulnerable to exploitation in agricultural sector their conditions are worsening when Syrian refugees are now taking over the jobs as well.”
Lebanon was similarly affected by the phenomenon, the report added. Rising cases of “modern slavery,” such as child labor, forced and early marriage was the second effect.
“It’s an incredibly difficult time for the region and that brings us to the third effect [of the trifold] which is the capacity of governments to respond to all of these issues,” McCormack said.
“I guess the current crisis affects this migrant crisis because they have reduced capacity to respond to these problems [of migrant workers], reduced funding and police personnel to make sure they’re monitoring the situation. So we are worried that this situation, which is already very bad, might deteriorate further.”
Not only are migrant workers being affected by the consequences of the crises, they are at times also being caught in the conflict, McCormack explained.
In Iraq, for example, some migrants have been used as human shields. Some migrant workers are still heading to Syria, she added.
“This information, though, isn’t really getting back to a lot of the sending countries,” she said, adding that some embassies have exerted efforts to protect their citizens.
Many have ended up finding themselves being victims of trafficking and refugees as well, she explained. One of the reasons this happens is because workers rarely have control over their journeys.
Although exploitation usually occurs in the receiving country, the exploitation of migrant workers can also occur in the sending country.
In these cases, the employee is often provided with false information about their job, be it the nature of their occupation or salaries.
Some migrant workers also find themselves transiting through other countries before reaching their destination.
“One of the problems is that a lot of these workers coming over to the Middle East, expecting that they might work in Lebanon or in Jordan, they don’t have control once they have gone with a recruiter,” McCormack explained. “So the recruiter is placing them in Iraq or in Syria and they end up in a country they didn’t except.”
Lebanon is overwhelmed by the refugee crisis, and although the civil society is active in advocating for support to victims, a lot more needs to be done.
“There is a lack of ability to enforce the laws that have been enacted, there is an unwillingness to put agriculture and domestic worker rights ... in labor laws, they are probably of the two biggest problems here,” she said.
“The biggest problem for Lebanon was having that willingness to take these further steps to protect workers and prevent abuse.”