Trafficking battle call By BEGENA P PRADEEP

BAHRAIN must step up the battle against human trafficking, according to a new US State Department report.

The country remains on a special watchlist of nations being monitored for what action they are taking to combat the problem, despite issuing new guidelines on the employment conditions of migrant workers.

Bahrain was one of 170 nations included in the ninth annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP), which said it did little to improve its services to protect victims of trafficking.

It was placed in the second tier watchlist for failing to enforce laws against trafficking in persons and prevent the punishment of victims of trafficking.

This put it alongside countries such as Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Ghana, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Tunisia and Uzbekistan.

However, Bahrain was ahead of most of the other Gulf countries, who ranked in the third tier, except Oman.

The US State Department is required by law to submit an annual report to Congress on foreign governments' efforts to eliminate severe forms of human trafficking.

Interim assessments are also made to gauge the anti-trafficking progress of countries.

Those in the first tier have governments that fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorisation Act (TVPA)'s minimum standards, while second tier countries are those whose governments do not fully comply with the act's minimum standards but are making significant efforts to do so.

The US ranks countries in the third tier as those whose governments do not fully comply with the act's minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

The report recommends that Bahrain significantly increases its investigation and prosecution of trafficking offences, particularly those involving forced labour.

It was also advised to apply formal procedures to identify victims of trafficking to ensure that victims are not punished for illegal migration or prostitution.

"The government made modest progress in conducting anti-trafficking law enforcement during the year, prosecuting its first case under its January 2008 anti-trafficking statute," said the report.

"The Interior Ministry's specialised unit investigated trafficking crimes, particularly those involving sex trafficking, claiming to have disbanded a prostitution ring and rescued 43 Chinese women believed to be trafficking victims.

"But prosecutors reportedly viewed the evidence as insufficient to pursue legal action."

The report noted that last December a Thai woman was jailed for three and a half years and fined BD5,000 for trafficking three other Thais into Bahrain for prostitution.

"During this time, the government reportedly closed several manpower agencies alleged to have confiscated workers' passports, switched contracts, or withheld payment of salaries," it said.

"The government also ordered 12 employers to pay back and release their workers."

The report said the law against withholding workers' passports, a common practice affecting migrant workers, was not enforced effectively and remains widespread.

It said the majority of victims sought shelter at their embassies or through the Migrant Workers Protection Society, which received a grant of BD6,000 from the government to operate its shelter.

Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) reforms allowing workers to change employers criminalising the use of "free visas" was praised.

However, the report noted that regulations do not apply to domestic workers, who are most vulnerable to forced labour.

"The government continued to lack a formal procedure to identify victims among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers who have left their employers or women arrested for prostitution," it said.

The report said long legal delays and a perceived bias against foreign workers by judges and prosecutors discouraged workers from filing cases.

However, it noted that Bahrain's efforts to prevent trafficking had increased in the last year.

"The Interior Ministry produced a brochure describing Bahrain's anti-trafficking law, distributing them to at-risk groups upon arrival in the country, and soliciting complaints to its hotline for investigations," it said.

Bahrain was also praised for providing services and support valued at more than $60,000 (BD22,617) allowing 315 civil society volunteers, journalists, foreign diplomats, and government officials, including LMRA officials to be trained.

Foreign Ministry officials were yesterday unavailable for comment. © Gulf Daily News