Luke Oades reports on the South Asia and Middle East Forum’s recent Bahrain event, chaired by Khalid Nadeem in May at the Royal Air Force Club
THE SPECIAL SESSION on Bahrain, which contained a heavy focus on migrant rights and human trafficking throughout, was opened by Mr Ausamah Al Absi, CEO of the Bahrain Labour Market Regulatory Committee and Chairman of the National Committee for Combatting Trafficking in Persons. He began the session with an account of Bahrain’s labour market and its corresponding laws and regulations. Foreign nationals account for 55 per cent of the total population and 83 per cent of the labour supply, yet the legal framework for migrant workers originally involved a sponsorship system in which employers and employees were tied to each other with little scope for movement within the labour market. This led to a large black market for labour, in which human rights abuses such as forced labour became more common. In 2004, (when unemployment peaked at 17 per cent), Mr Al Absi began to work on large-scale reform of the labour market, including allowing workers to move between employers without the employers’ consent and allowing workers with leave to remain in Bahrain without the risk of deportation after the expiry of their work permits.
Last year, Mr Al Absi introduced the ‘Flexi Permit’ programme, a renewable two-year residency permit with re-entry visa that allows expats with terminated or expired work contracts to continue living in Bahrain without the consent of an employer. However, such was the lack of trust between the authorities and the migrant worker community that fewer than 5,000 applied for them. Mr Al Absi then said that a highlight of his agenda over the next few years would be strengthening ties between the Bahraini authorities and the migrant worker community, and expanding the scale of the Flex Permit programme. He believes that human trafficking in Bahrain is mostly a by-product of the labour sponsorship system and other institutional failures, hence in his view the establishment of a new legal framework for foreign workers is the greatest way to end human trafficking and its associated human rights abuses in the country.
The changing of the institutional framework leading to migrant exploitation may be key to Mr Al Absi’s plan to end human trafficking in Bahrain, but this isn’t his only means of doing so: in 2015 he introduced ‘Expat Protection and Services Centres’ to aid migrant workers requiring immediate help. These involve facilities in visible locations with easy access and a police presence, which include emergency contact numbers for seven languages, shelters with 200 beds, clinics for medical and psychological care and representatives from human rights organisations. Responding to a later question about the sexual abuse of domestic workers in Bahrain, Mr Al Absi also discussed the National Referral Mechanism, a system that provides an immediate response to reports of misconduct, and conducts follow-up investigations whilst also working to reach out to migrant communities and potential abuse victims.
Chair of the South Asia and Middle East Forum Khalid Nadeem concluded Mr Al Absi’s talk by mentioning the clear progress the nation has made towards establishing formal procedures to aid migrant workers and stop human rights abuses. He also suggested the possibility of Bahrain acting as a role model in this sense for many other nations such as Kuwait, Qatarand the UAE.
The next speaker was Reverend Mr Martin Kettle, Policy Advisor in the Mission and Public Affairs Division of the Archbishop’s Council, Church of England, who discussed the British experience of combatting forced labour and human trafficking. In 2017, the British national referral mechanism received 5,145 referrals, including 2,180 minors. Labour and sexual deportation are major issues as well as domestic servitude, and the Church of England has been largely involved in efforts to combat this. Nearly half of the 42 dioceses of the Church of England have been involved in initiatives to combat human trafficking, such as training courses to help identify disguised areas like car-washes that may be hiding modern-day slave caches.
The Reverend suggested a few major areas to prioritise in order for Bahrain (as well as the UK) to maintain progress on tackling forced labour and the exploitation of migrant workers. These include the maintenance of existing programmes, such as Bahrain’s Flex Permit system, to alleviate the shortcomings caused by the sponsorship system, as well as extended use of the referral mechanism to enhance transparency on current human rights issues. In his opinion it is also vital to encourage independent academic research on migrant labour exploitation and human rights abuses, plus criminal sanctions for companies found to be involved in human trafficking are essential. Cooperation on the matter is vital as well, both with other countries on an international level and also with civil and religious groups within the nation itself.
In a closing statement from the Forum’s Chairman, Khalid Nadeem stated that: “the Forum is of the opinion that certain South Asian nations are neglecting the interests of their nationals, i.e. failing to protect them in terms of security and welfare. It is regrettable that South Asian countries have consistently fallen below international standards with regard to the protection of their nationals, which has been well-documented by Mr Al Absi. More consultations with Western states like the UK should be provided in terms of advice and assistance to South Asian governments in dealing with Gulf governments. The described problems are not just specific to the South Asian countries, but also concern many Western countries. We have a moral obligation to advise and assist the combat of human trafficking and raise the living standards of migrant workers. Other Gulf countries need to emulate Bahrain’s example in dealing with these issues. Moreover, it is also the responsibility of international organisations such as the UN to tackle issues such as migrant workers’ rights and human trafficking.”