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Traffic Jam: Gender, Labor, Migration and Trafficking in Dubai

Pardis Mahdavi, Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center and Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Pomona College

Date & Time

Oct. 9, 2009
12:00pm – 1:00pm

Traffic Jam: Gender, Labor, Migration and Trafficking in Dubai

Mahdavi began the discussion by acknowledging the sensitive nature of the trafficking issue and indicating that she would speak to the issue from an anthropological approach. While detailing an anecdote from her experiences in the United Arab Emirates, Mahdavi highlighted many of the positive effects that the UAE's nascent civil society has provided to trafficked victims, including linguistic skills to offer legal assistance. With the release of the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), Mahdavi indicated that this civil society was wiped out, along with many of the services it provided. She mentioned that since 2000, trafficking had become very political throughout the world and in Europe and the United States, in particular. As a result of this increased scrutiny, the United States released the TIP report earlier this year to present a global trafficking scorecard placing countries into three tiers, in order to distinguish compliant countries from non-compliant countries. The non-compliant countries, most of which are Muslim, also include Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela. Mahdavi described the TIP report as more of an indication of a country's position as friend or foe of the United States rather than a report on current trafficking trends. With the decline of UAE's civil society, Mahdavi pointed out the overall effect of the TIP report has paradoxically hurt the very people it was trying to help.

Throughout her talk, Mahdavi also underscored many of the misconceptions about human trafficking. Because of a hyper-scrutiny regarding sex, she stated that trafficked persons have become associated solely with sex trafficking. This association ignores other types of trafficking and issues related to migration. For example, the equation of trafficking with "women and children," as put forth by many organizations including the United Nations, ignores male victims of trafficking. Men, who Mahdavi pointed out are a large percentage of trafficked individuals, are not portrayed as vulnerable like women and children but often as predatory middlemen. Men in construction and the service industry, in particular, suffer unexpected abuse. With migrants comprising eighty percent of UAE's population, Mahdavi indicated that trafficking abuses that take place in the Gulf are not usually abuses from Arabs but from fellow countrymen of migrants. Such mischaracterizations and labels also ignore problems of structural violence, such as poverty, to which migrants are often subjected and which are exacerbated by issues related to gender, race, and class.

While recognizing attempts to resolve human trafficking issues, Mahdavi argued that common approaches of increased police forces and tightened borders actually make it more likely that migrants will end up in the informal economy. Instead, Mahdavi recommended strengthening civil society, which would include increased transparency and accountability. She emphasized that organizations need to receive official status as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from the state to secure financial assistance and to adequately disperse power among informal groups and the government. This move would allow organizations to hold each other accountable as well as the government, particularly since the government cannot accomplish the work provided by the multitude of informal groups. Moreover, Mahdavi maintained that there are no avenues for recourse without a civil society. Mahdavi also recommended decriminalizing the status of illegal workers to avoid a reliance on the informal economy. These changes would allow governments and policymakers to better inform policy decisions regarding human trafficking.

Drafted by Kendra Heideman on behalf of the Middle East Program

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The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more


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