This week, Saudi Arabia took a monumental leap forward in international recognition of its efforts to combat human trafficking.
In the US Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, Saudi Arabia jumped from a Tier 3 country in 2019 to the Tier 2 Watchlist in 2020 with respect to major improvements in transparency and coordination with global partners, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to fight this crime.
Following the announcement, IOM noted that over the past year “significant and concerted efforts have been made to improve the [Saudi] government’s response, and the upgraded ranking in 2020 reflects this.”
Saudi Arabia has evolved from a country with a limited political infrastructure for combating human trafficking to one with a cohesive governmental framework dedicated to targeting trafficking in persons. The Saudi National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT), founded in line with the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, is the Kingdom’s nerve center for combating human trafficking and brings together members from the ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Labor and Social Development, Culture and Media, and the Human Rights Commission around one table.
The work of the NCCHT ranges from identifying potential victims, preventing their revictimization and repatriating them to their home countries or legally resettling them in the Kingdom. This mandate comes in addition to developing public awareness campaigns and training other governmental entities to spot traffickers and their targets.
Saudi Arabia’s improved ranking celebrates the tireless work of NCCHT, which unveiled its ground-breaking National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in March 2020. Developed in coordination with IOM and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the NRM clarifies the role of various governmental entities and outlines best practices in the identification and referral of victims to the appropriate authorities. An integral aspect of the NRM is the training of key professionals responsible for recognizing warning signs of trafficking.
Remarkably the Kingdom ensured that NCCHT’s work has continued despite the COVID-19 pandemic. These training programs are being offered remotely, with NCCHT members and other professionals undergoing virtual training on combating human trafficking through the “four Ps:” prevention, the prosecution of perpetrators, the protection of victims, and the promotion of partnerships on the local, national, and international levels.
“The fact that the program continues even during the pandemic shows the commitment and determination of the Kingdom to improve the national response to [human] trafficking,” said Dr. Hatem Aly, UNODC Regional Representative for the Gulf.
This timing is key. The coronavirus pandemic, which has led to a rise in unemployment and economic hardship, threatens to exacerbate worker exploitation and increase vulnerable individuals’ risk of falling victim to unsavory and illegal labor practices. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime warns that pandemics often cause governments to reduce funding for anti-trafficking activities and victim support funds, while organized crime networks seize upon opportunities to take advantage of desperate individuals willing to accept employment in the grey or black markets. Sex trafficking and labor trafficking, crimes that rely on uneven monitoring and enforcement and weak political protections, can worsen during times of crisis.
Positions awaiting job seekers, particularly women, can often turn out to be non-existent or completely different from what was originally promised. Combating this practice requires that employees can break contracts with visa sponsors or informal employers and seek help from the authorities in cases of deceit or exploitation.
It is promising that Saudi Arabia is working to give employees more power to prevent abuse.
In 2019, the Kingdom referred only 54 cases of trafficking for further investigation by the competent authorities. It is clear that despite the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia has continued to dedicate resources to protecting victims in the short term while addressing the broader economic and regulatory landscapes to prevent abuse in all forms. Establishing additional legal safeguards and reforming the sponsorship system to disincentivize potential traffickers is the first major step in meeting international best practices.
Saudi Arabia’s recent elevation from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watchlist is an important milestone in recognizing the country’s progress towards a more proactive model in combating human trafficking. It is also a reminder of the country’s determination to continue improving in this regard.
In next year’s ranking, it will be worth noting the Kingdom’s efforts to combat human trafficking in light of the COVID-19 crisis. While criminal networks may adapt, Saudi Arabia is making long-term investments in its ability to deter traffickers and intercept this crime—pandemic or no pandemic.
• Madison Clough is a strategic communications professional residing in the Gulf. She holds a master’s degree in international security from George Mason University and specializes in communications on geopolitical and cultural issues.