Global Human Rights Defence

Human Trafficking in the Middle East
In 2018 exactly 1887 cases1 of human trafficking were reported in the Middle East2. The actual number could be much higher. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, most of the detected victims are adults, while children represent between 5 and 8% of victims. Human trafficking is mainly committed for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labour and exploitative begging in North Africa and the Middle East. Each of these forms of trafficking represented 30% of the detected victims in 2018. Most of the victims are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation and two-thirds of the victims for forced labour are female.3 The origins of the victims diverge in areas of the Middle East. In the Gulf Cooperation Council countries4, a large third of detected victims come from the region, another third from South and East Asia and the Pacific while 18% originate from East Africa. Meanwhile, in other Middle Eastern countries5, 41% of victims come from East Africa, 23% are from Eastern Europe and Central Asia and an equal proportion from the region itself.6
International instruments Several international documents exist defining the various forms of human trafficking and providing mechanisms for combating the issue. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, is viewed as the most important one and includes clauses regarding the criminalization of the practice. It is one of the Palermo protocols, which were adopted by the United Nations in 2000 to supplement the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The different forms of human trafficking are defined in the 1930 Forced Labour Convention, which is one of the eight fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization; the 1926 Slavery Convention; and the 1949 UN Convention for the Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution. One of the main human rights instruments, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, also acknowledges and prohibits the various forms of human trafficking.7

Despite the existence of these documents, their implementation is yet to be perfect. For example, the Palermo Protocol provides an extensive view on fighting human trafficking, however, ratifying states do not extend the implementation procedures to fully combat the problem. There is a tendency for the ratifying states to draw focus on very specific issues without seeing it as a wider problem or addressing means of prevention. To effectively solve the problem, countries need to ratify all the meaningful documents together and follow the proposed guidelines leading to solutions. The United Nations also propose an alternative view of human trafficking as a human rights problem instead of merely a criminal act. This appears to be the suggested approach that would allow focusing on ‘preventing, protecting and prosecuting’ effectively.8

The two following sections of this article will focus on examining two cases of human trafficking in the Middle Eastern region.

The Kafala system A prominent mechanism of human trafficking used in the Middle East, specifically in the Arabian Gulf, is the Kafala system. Originally established during the early 20th century, it was meant to protect foreign workers immigrating to take job vacancies during the emergence of commercial trading and infrastructure building in the region. Nowadays, the legal framework is used to control migrant workers by extending rights of private employers to control a variety of job-related aspects of the employees. This often includes restricting movement outside of the host country and the possibility to change jobs, allowing for wages to be set below the minimum standard and the lack of contract standardization.9
Dubai construction workers having their lunch break in Dubai. Photograph: Piotr Zarobkiewicz (CC)
Due to the contrast of rights given to the employer compared to the migrant employees, the Kafala system is labelled to be a form of modern slavery. Given the fact that the system is mostly implemented as a matter of jurisdiction of the interior ministries of the host countries that do not regulate labour laws, workers are denied access to legal protection. In this way, they become an easy target for work-related exploitation. Additionally, the Middle Eastern countries fail to ratify international agreements that are necessary for migrant labour force protection. Even if a number of laws succeed to be created for that matter, enforcement often does not follow.10

Despite the prevalence of Kafala in the Arabian Gulf, the international attention drawn to it has proven to be a start for reformative measures. Over the years the control of the employer has diminished, which in turn allows workers to have more freedom in making decisions about their employment contracts or private matters without scrutiny of the ‘principal’. For example, Saudi Arabia now allows migrant workers to travel outside of the country’s territory without notifying the employer. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain started providing more flexible working visas.11

Recently, by far the most scrutinized country in the region regarding the Kafala system is Qatar since it is set to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Around 30 000 migrant workers are allocated to work in infrastructure, hospitality and stadium creation for the incoming championship. Due to the extreme heat in Qatar and the lack of safe working conditions, a high number of laborers have suffered injuries or died.12 Last year, Human Rights Watch released a report after interviewing a sample of workers only to discover that together with not providing sufficient workplace protection, employers fail to pay or withhold salaries. This practice has become more apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic. The payment delays lead to workers having to live on the verge of starvation or in debt. These facts are troubling, especially given the 2017 promises of Qatar to abolish the abusive Kafala system.13 However, since the start of the preparation for the World Cup, Qatar has introduced the minimum wage requirements for migrant workers and allowed for more flexible employment alterations for those wishing to switch professions.14

ISIS and human trafficking

Displaced Yazidi people, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, in 2014. File photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters
The fight against human trafficking is deeply shaped by the political context. When the political structure of a region is shattered in a war context, the options for preventing the recourse to human trafficking are rare, as illustrates the systematic slavery of Yazidis by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq in 2014. In 2014, ISIS fighters invaded the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, which is home to the majority of Yazidis.15 Yazidis are an endogamous minority, mostly inhabiting in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Most Yazidis are Kurmanji-speaking, and even if the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq’s Sunni Kurdish majority. Based on a strong oral tradition, Yazidism is an ancient faith which associates some Islamic beliefs with elements of the ancient Persian religion called Zoroastrianism. Partly because of this combination of different belief systems, Yazidis are considered infidels by ISIS’s adherents. As ISIS fighters controlled the Iraqi city of Sinjar and surrounding areas in August 2014, they captured the Yazidi population and systematically divided them into three distinct groups: men and boys who had reached puberty; women and children; and boys between approximately 8 and 12.16

If men and boys converted to Islam, they could avoid execution and became ISIS captives. They were transferred to sites where they were forced to work. Yazidi women and girls were deemed property of ISIS and openly considered slaves. Most of them were sold to ISIS fighters in slave markets in Iraq and Syria. In order to circulate photos of the captured females, ISIS fighters used social media websites, such as Telegram. Once sold, Yazidi women and girls were used as sexual slaves and forced to work as domestic servants in the fighters’ homes. Around one-fifth of these females were contained in military-based holding sites, mainly for sexual exploitation purposes. The young children were transferred with their mothers when the latter were sold. Finally, the group of Yazidi boys between 8 and 12 years old were forcibly transferred to training centres and military camps in Iraq and Syria where they were renamed and treated as ISIS recruits, subject to forced training and indoctrination.17

Al-Dayel and Mumford argue that the scale and structural elements of ISIS’s slavery economy is new.18 The circumstances in which ISIS acted highlight new issues in the fight against trafficking. While states are best-placed actors to develop and implement an anti-trafficking strategy, such attempts are impaired when governmental authorities have lost control of their territories. This is still a challenge to be resolved to reach effective prevention of human trafficking in all places and political contexts.

The pathway in the fight against human trafficking 

In general, the fight against trafficking in persons mostly relies on the state’s ability to implement legislation, to respect the legal provisions, and, if needed, to prosecute human traffickers. States need to ensure that effective judicial mechanisms exist that allow victims to seek legal action. To promote an effective fight against the human trafficking issue and ensure prevention, the international community needs to draw attention to the abuses in order to encourage change and reforms. 


  1.  UNODC. (2020). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, p. 31. UN publications.
  2.  In this article, the Middle East is considered as the countries of Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
  3.  Ibid, p. 171.
  4.  Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
  5.  Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Syrian Arab Republic.
  6.  Ibid, p. 172.
  7.  Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2014, August). International instruments concerning the trafficking in persons. Retrieved from
  8.  Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2014, August). International instruments concerning the trafficking in persons. Retrieved from
  9.  Robinson, K. (2021, March 23) What is the Kafala System? Retrieved from,well%20as%20Jordan%20and%20Lebanon
  10.  Robinson, K. (2021, March 23) What is the Kafala System? Retrieved from,well%20as%20Jordan%20and%20Lebanon
  11.  Robinson, K. (2021, March 23) What is the Kafala System? Retrieved from,well%20as%20Jordan%20and%20Lebanon
  12.  Robinson, K. (2021, March 23) What is the Kafala System? Retrieved from,well%20as%20Jordan%20and%20Lebanon
  13.   Human Rights Watch. (2020, August 24). Qatar: Little progress on protecting migrant workers. Retrieved from
  14.  Robinson, K. (2021, March 23) What is the Kafala System? Retrieved from,well%20as%20Jordan%20and%20Lebanon
  15.  UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (UN IICI Syria). (2016). The Yazidi Genocide, p. 103. Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 23, 103. Al-Dayel, N., & Mumford, A. (2020). ISIS and Their Use of Slavery. International Center for Counter-Terrorism. Retrieved from
  16.  UN IICI Syria. (2016). The Yazidi Genocide, p. 104. Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 23, 103. Al-Dayel, N., & Mumford, A. (2020). ISIS and Their Use of Slavery. International Center for Counter-Terrorism. Retrieved from
  17.  UN IICI Syria. (2016). The Yazidi Genocide, pp. 104-109. Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 23, 103. Al-Dayel, N., & Mumford, A. (2020). Al-Dayel, N., & Mumford, A. (2020). ISIS and Their Use of Slavery. International Center for Counter-Terrorism. Retrieved from
  18.  Al-Dayel, N., & Mumford, A. (2020). ISIS and Their Use of Slavery. International Center for Counter-Terrorism. Retrieved from


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Marguerite Remy
Coordinator Middle East and a Legal Researcher.

Marguerite is the coordinator of the team of legal researchers focusing on the Middle East and a legal researcher herself.

She developed her expertise in international human rights law, international criminal law and humanitarian law during her double bachelor in law and political science at Sorbonne-Paris 1 University and her LLM in public international law at Leiden University. Particularly interested in the Middle East for years, Marguerite has acquired a good knowledge of the region and its human rights issues through various field experience, including internships in a cultural service of the French embassy and in a local NGO, as well as a semester in a university in the region. Currently, her main interests are accountability mechanisms for crimes committed during recent armed conflicts, notably in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian situation and the Palestinian case at the ICC, and transitional justice issues.

Editorial Team Lead

Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

Mattia Ruben Castiello
Media quality coordinator

Mattia is currently in charge of quality checking and improving all the social media and website handles of the Global Human Rights Defence.
With a bachelor in Psychology from Spain and a master in Cultural Anthropology from the Netherlands, Mattia’s passion now lies in Human Rights in regard to the refugee and migrant crisis. Having lived his whole life in East-Arica, Mattia has had the opportunity to work with a vast amount of non-government organisations and health institutions. This has provided him with knowledge in diverse cultural understandings as well as interest in concerning global issues.

Jeremy Samuël van den Enden
Coordinator Bangladesh & Communication Officer
Mr. Van den Enden has a MSc in International Relations and specializes in inequality, racial dynamics and security within international diplomacy and policymaking. He studies the contemporary as well as modern historical intricacies of human rights in the global political arena. Furthermore, Mr. Van den Enden assists GHRD in revitalizing its internal and external communication.
Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Prerna Tara
Human Rights Coordinator

Prerna Tara graduated from Leiden Law School with an LLM in Public International Law. She practiced in the India before starting her Masters. She has assisted in pro- bono cases and interned at some of the best legal firms in India which has brought her face to face with the legal complexities in areas of corporate law, white collar crimes etc. Her work at GHRD deals with human rights research spanning throughout the globe.

Lina Borchardt
Team Head (Promotions)

She is currently heading the Promotions Team and University Chapter of Global Human Rights Defence. Her background is the one of European and International Law, which I am studying in The Hague. She has previously gained experience at Women´s Rights organizations in Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey over the past years.
She has been working for Global Human Rights Defence in the Netherlands since 2020. Her focus now is concentrated on the Human Rights and Minorities Film Festival and the cooperation of GHRD with students across the country.

Bianca Fyvie
Coordinator and Head Researcher

Bianca has widespread knowledge about social problems and human rights issues, with a specific focus on social justice in Africa and the empowerment of communities and individuals. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Stellenbosch University as well as a Master’s degree in Social Work and Human Rights from Gothenburg University. She has participated in courses on Women’s Leadership at Stellenbosch University, and has worked with organizations such as AIESEC towards furthering the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. She also has experience in working directly with marginalized and vulnerable groups in South Africa while qualifying as a Social Worker.
Bianca is the coordinator for a group of interns doing research and reporting on Human Rights topics in a range of African countries. Her focus is on ensuring that these countries are monitored and have up to date reports and research conducted in order to allow relevant and updated information to be produced.

Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
(European Union)

Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Hiba Zene
Coordinator and Head Researcher

Hiba Zene holds a Bachelor’s degree in International and European Law from The Hague University and, has significant legal knowledge in the field of international human rights law. She actively advocates for the protection of all human rights of vulnerable minorities and marginalised groups. Focusing, specifically on the human rights of children and women in Africa.
Hiba is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. As a human rights defender for GHRD she has examined and investigated various human rights abuses, violations and issues in Africa. She has led research missions addressing issues on Statelessness in Kenya, Child Abuse in Uganda, and Teen Pregnancy in Kenya.

Thaís Ferreira de Souza
Coordinator and Head Researcher (International Justice and Human Rights)

Senior Paralegal at PGMBM (Amsterdam office), working to bring justice for victims of wrongdoing by big corporations, with a focus on human rights and environmental law.
Previously, Thaís worked as a Visiting Professional at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, providing legal advice on international human rights law and international criminal law. She also worked at the State Court of Justice of the Rondônia State (TJRO) in Brazil from 2013 to 2017, initially as a legal clerk and posteriorly as a legal advisor to judges. In 2016 she served as the regional representative of the Brazilian Institute of Criminal Procedural Law (IBRASPP) in the State of Rondônia, Brazil and during her bachelor’s degree, she worked as a Research Assistant at the Research Group ‘Ethics and Human Rights’ of the Federal University of Rondônia for over three years.

Fairuz Sewbaks
Coordinator and Head Researcher

Fairuz Sewbaks holds extensive legal knowledge regarding international human rights, with a specific focus on human rights dealings taking place in continental Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree from The Hague University in public international law and international human rights and successfully followed advanced human rights courses at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She furthermore participated in the Istanbul Summer School where she was educated about the role of epidemics and pandemics in light of human rights.


Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

Priya Lachmansingh
Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
(Asia & America)

Priya Lachmansingh is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International & European
Law at the Hague University of Applied Science.
As GHRD’s Asia & America human rights coordinator and GHRD Political Advisor, Priya’s
prominent focus is to highlight human rights violations targeted against minority and
marginalized groups in Asia and America and to broaden GHRD reach within Dutch political
parties and as well seek domestic funding.

Fabian Escobar
Coordinator and Head Researcher

My name is Fabian Escobar, L.L.B. International and European Law candidate to The Hague University. I was born in Honduras and been living in The Netherlands, more specifically Amsterdam the last 8 years. I am passionate about Human Rights, Civil and Political Rights, fighting racism, and empowering women and ethnic minorities. In GHRD I am the coordinator for the Europe Team, I am thankful for being part of this team and that I have been given the opportunity to learn and apply my learning.