The Arab States region is comprised of 12 countries, accounting for 2 per cent of the world’s population. While the Arab States is the world’s least populated region and smallest in terms of land mass, it comprises a rich diversity of culture, religion, industry, and geography. Yet, the region is impacted by the effects of conflict, political instability, economic shocks, and climate change — factors, among others, that drive modern slavery. More than 20 million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) originate from the Arab States, and the region continues to host nearly 14.5 million of those who were forcibly displaced.1 The effects of protracted conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen spur displacement, food insecurity, and economic instability.
The region is also home to nearly 37 million migrants, originating from within the region, Asia and the Pacific, and Africa.2 Populations are vulnerable to sexual slavery and forced labour imposed by armed groups, forced labour as a result of displacement from their homes, and forced and child marriage to ease financial strain on households. In Jordan, Lebanon, and wealthier Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — migrant workers are vulnerable to modern slavery under the exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system. Forced labour is reported in sectors such as domestic work,3 construction,4 hospitality,5 and security.6 Within these contexts, gender inequality, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic work to amplify existing vulnerabilities.
Bahrain took the most action to address modern slavery in the Arab States, followed by the UAE, while Iraq and Lebanon took the least action. Syria and Yemen were excluded from the assessment of government action on modern slavery due to ongoing conflict and extreme disruption to government function. The need to reform gender discriminatory laws and grant all workers, including migrants, equal protection under national labour laws remains a pressing issue. At the same time, far greater action is needed to address modern slavery in the context of conflict, crisis, and displacement.
What is the extent and nature of modern slavery in the region?
An estimated 1.7 million men, women, and children were living in modern slavery in the Arab States region on any given day in 2021. Despite having the lowest number of people living in modern slavery across all regions, once population was considered, the Arab States had the highest prevalence of modern slavery. An estimated 10.1 people per thousand people were living in modern slavery in the region, which breaks down to 5.3 in forced labour and 4.8 in forced marriage. Forced labour was the most common form of exploitation, accounting for just over half of people living in modern slavery (52 per cent). As in all other regions, the prevalence of forced marriage was higher among females (5.5 per thousand) compared to males (4.3 per thousand).
Within the region, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait were the countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery. Saudi Arabia also had the highest estimated number of people in modern slavery, followed by Iraq, and together they accounted for half of all people in modern slavery in the region. Migrant workers face particular risk of labour exploitation in the region as a result of the kafala (sponsorship) system that operates in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.7 While not a form of modern slavery itself, the system embeds a steep power imbalance between workers and employers, with the result that employers control whether a migrant worker can enter, reside, work, change jobs, and, in some cases, exit the country.8 Female domestic workers residing the GCC and Jordan and Lebanon are particularly at risk of forced labour in private households9 and males vulnerable to debt bondage in construction.10
Conflict continues to shape experiences of modern slavery in the Arab States.11 Families displaced by conflict in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen rely on negative coping mechanisms such as forced and child marriage to relieve economic stress and protect daughters from the threat of sexual violence.12 Syrian and Iraqi refugees have been trafficked from host communities in Jordan and Lebanon for forced marriage, forced commercial sexual exploitation, and forced labour, including forced begging.13 Almost 3,000 Yazidi men and women remain missing after being abducted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014.14 Anecdotal reports note that some missing Yazidi women and children are still enslaved in Iraq, Syria, and Türkiye,15 while others are reportedly held captive inside ISIS widow camps, such as the al-Hawl detention camp in north-eastern Syria.16
Although these figures are the most reliable to date, they are conservative estimates given the gaps and limitations of data collection in the Arab States. It is not possible to conduct nationally representative surveys in countries experiencing profound and current conflict which leads to an underestimate of some forms of modern slavery. Moreover, the estimates do not capture all forms of modern slavery, such as the recruitment of child soldiers, trafficking for the purposes of organ removal, and all child marriages. Despite gaps in data, sources indicate that children have been recruited into armed forces in Lebanon,17 Iraq,18 Syria,19 and Yemen,20 while trafficking for organ removal has been reported in Jordan21 and Lebanon.22
Table 1: Estimated prevalence and number of people in modern slavery, by country
|Rank||Country||Estimated prevalence of modern slavery (per 1,000 population)||Estimated number of people in modern slavery||Population|
|2||United Arab Emirates||13.4||132,000||9,890,000|
What drives vulnerability to modern slavery in the region?
Figure 1: Level of vulnerability to modern slavery, by dimension
The Arab States is the second most vulnerable region in the world to modern slavery. Conflict as a driver of vulnerability is more significant in the Arab States than any other region. Other drivers of vulnerability were discrimination towards minority groups, political instability, and lack of political rights. At the country level, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq were the most vulnerable countries; these countries also fall within the top 10 most vulnerable countries globally. Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE had the lowest levels of vulnerability within the region; yet compared with the least vulnerable countries around the world, vulnerability is still relatively high in these countries.
Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is the greatest driver of vulnerability in the region. In Yemen minority groups such as the Al-Muhamasheen have long experienced marginalisation,23 while in Jordan, Lebanon, and GCC countries, migrant workers are highly vulnerable to exploitation under the kafala system, which grants employers substantial control over their lives.24 Risks have compounded in the wake of COVID-19,25 with reports of increased wage theft,26 detention,27 confinement to the workplace,28 and unemployment.29 In GCC countries where migrants comprise 82 per cent of the workforce on average,30 the pandemic has led to an escalation of workforce nationalisation policies; that is, efforts to increase the proportion of nationals employed.31 Such policies have spurred increased xenophobia and stereotyping of migrants as responsible for the spread of coronavirus.32 Individuals belonging to the LGBTQI+ community also face widespread discrimination throughout the region, as homosexuality and gender non-conformity are criminalised in several countries in the region.33
Governance issues linked to political instability, restricted political rights, and government inaction to combat modern slavery drive vulnerability across the Arab States. In Iraq and Yemen, corruption and conflict contribute to severe political instability and disrupt government functions, exacerbating vulnerability.34 Throughout the region, gender inequality both drives, and is reinforced by, governance issues compounding vulnerability for women and girls. Despite some progress, all Arab States countries except the UAE were ranked in the bottom fifth of more than 150 countries assessed in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Index, reflecting poorer gender equality in the region across economic, education, health, and political dimensions.35 No countries in the region afford women equal rights in matters of divorce, inheritance, citizenship, and employment, while in most countries women lack equal access to justice and freedom of movement.36 These domains are typically governed by personal status laws and male guardianship systems,37 which severely restrict women’s agency and increase their risk of exploitation.38 Further, during the pandemic, women and girls across the region experienced a heavier domestic work burden39 and heightened risk of gender-based violence.40
“My mother was sick and wanted someone to help her with the housework.” Qatari male on his forced marriage at age 24
Conflict drives vulnerability in the Arab States, yet the effects are not uniform throughout the region. While Oman and the UAE experience comparatively low levels of conflict, heightened risk of modern slavery in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen is spurred by conflict. The erosion of state protection has led to increased risk of conflict-related sexual violence and slavery in these countries.41 Meanwhile, conflict-related displacement has entrenched risks region-wide. At least 12.3 million people were internally displaced in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen in 2021,42 and a further 2.1 million refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and others of concern were recorded throughout the Arab States.43 With resources in host countries increasingly strained,44 most of these people face insecure conditions and complex humanitarian needs,45 fuelling their vulnerability to modern slavery. For example, Syrian refugee girls in Jordan46 and Lebanon47 may be forced to marry as a means to access supplies and private shelters, and to protect against sexual violence and community perceptions of impurity. At the same time, research indicates that the influence of the host community may see families resist traditional expectations and delay child marriage.48 Underreporting of sexual violence due to patriarchal norms, particularly when victims are men and boys,49 as well as a lack of services for males, limits our understanding of their experiences of child and forced marriage in displacement settings.50
The effects of climate change are felt across the region, from severe drought in Syria51 to desertification in Jordan,52 with extreme water stress affecting most Arab States countries.53 In Yemen, natural disasters displaced more than 220,000 people in 2020 alone,54 while the war in Ukraine has caused disruptions to critical food imports in the Arab States region,55 worsening the humanitarian crisis there. The impacts of climate change exacerbate the push factors that make people vulnerable to modern slavery, including poverty, loss of livelihoods, displacement, and distress migration,56 with women and girls disproportionately impacted.57 Where livelihoods are threatened, families may turn to negative coping mechanisms such as forced and child marriage,58 or resort to irregular migration in search of alternative income, where risks of trafficking are heightened.59 Climate-related resource scarcity can also trigger conflict, or spur recruitment into armed groups due to loss of livelihoods,60 further compounding vulnerability to modern slavery.
Table 2: Level of vulnerability to modern slavery, by country
|United Arab Emirates||40|
What are governments in the region doing to address modern slavery?
Walk Free assessed government responses to modern slavery in nine countries in the region.61 Due to ongoing disruptions to government and limited data, Palestine, Syria and Yemen were excluded. The Arab States region scored an average government response rating of 43 per cent, the third highest score of the five regions. Government responses featured efforts to improve survivor support and better coordinate the response to modern slavery at the national and regional level. Despite some efforts to strengthen criminal justice mechanisms, the criminal justice response remained the weakest of any region. As in the 2018 GSI, no countries in the Arab States region have taken action to combat modern slavery in supply chains.
GDP per capita PPP (current international $) varied greatly at the country level,62 with wealthier GCC countries typically taking relatively stronger action to respond to modern slavery. For example, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Qatar are among the region’s wealthiest nations and demonstrated the strongest responses to modern slavery in the region. However, when compared to countries of similar wealth in other regions, GCC countries — particularly Kuwait — displayed a weak response relative to wealth,63 with significant gaps in protections for migrant workers persisting across the subregion. Migrant workers are highly vulnerable to exploitation under the kafala system, Jordan, Lebanon, and the GCC countries.64 During the reporting period, these countries continued to implement laws or policies that made it difficult for migrant workers to freely leave abusive employers. Across the region, only Kuwait and Iraq covered all categories of workers under national labour laws.65 In a positive step, Oman,66 Qatar,67 and Saudi Arabia68 adopted reforms to the kafala system, yet these were insufficient to dismantle the system entirely.
GCC countries have significantly higher GDP per capita than Lebanon and Iraq, the two countries taking the least action to address modern slavery. Government response efforts in Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq were constrained by limited resources as these countries continued to grapple with the flow-on effects of conflict in Syria and Yemen.69 However, despite this, Jordan took some positive action to respond to modern slavery in 2021, amending its 2009 anti-trafficking law to enhance witness and victim protection and access to compensation.70
Since 2018, most countries have taken further action to improve their response to modern slavery. For example, the government of Qatar established its first dedicated shelter for survivors of trafficking71 and Kuwait commenced meetings of its national anti-trafficking committee.72 Saudi Arabia launched an awareness campaign on how to identify and report modern slavery73 and established a National Referral Mechanism,74 with the ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 also entering into force there in 2021.75 No other countries made efforts to ratify international conventions since 2018 and, concerningly, the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189)76 has to date not been ratified by any country in the region. Further, no country has fully criminalised all forms of modern slavery, hampering access to justice for survivors. Oman,77 the UAE,78 and Qatar are the only countries to criminalise forced labour, while forced marriage is criminalised only in Iraq.79 No countries have established a minimum marriage age of 18 without exception.
“I think Lebanese law needs to change so that we may have our rights protected. I wouldn’t have had to escape.” 33-year-old Ethiopian female survivor of domestic servitude in Lebanon
Gaps in support services appeared across the region, with four countries neglecting to make services available for all survivors. Lebanon took the least action to identify and support survivors, while Saudi Arabia joined Bahrain as the only other country in the region to distribute national victim identification guidelines to all first responders.80 Three countries provided training for police recruits and only Saudi Arabia and the UAE provided regular training for frontline responders. There is evidence that survivors were detained or deported for immigration violations in all countries except the UAE,81 where information suggests that inconsistent application of screening procedures may have meant survivors were wrongly criminalised.82
“I needed support from the police but the police didn’t help. I wanted them to contact my consulate but they only called the agent.” 24-year-old Sierra Leonean female survivor of domestic servitude in Lebanon
Notably, all countries in the region have established a national body to coordinate the government’s response to modern slavery. All countries except Bahrain and Lebanon had a National Action Plan (NAP) to combat slavery in place, yet there is no evidence the NAPs were fully funded or independently monitored. No governments in the region addressed modern slavery in government and business supply chains.
Table 3: Government response score, by country and milestone
|Country*||Survivors identified and supported (%)||Criminal justice mechanisms (%)||National and regional level coordination (%)||Risk factors are addressed (%)||Government and business supply chains (%)||Total (%)|
|United Arab Emirates||59||42||75||64||0||50|
* Yemen and Syria excluded from analysis due to limited data
Recommendations for governments
Dismantle kafala by expanding coverage of national labour laws to include all workers, including migrant, domestic, seasonal workers. Ensure that migrant workers can freely enter, reside and exit the country and leave or transfer jobs without employer consent.
Abolish provisions in the law that criminalise absconding and enforce measures to discourage employers from filing false allegations against workers. Enforce laws that criminalise charging of recruitment fees and withholding of passports and identity documents.
Equip humanitarian practitioners to respond to modern slavery risks in crisis settings by rolling out the Global Protection Cluster’s Introductory Guide to Anti-Trafficking Action in Internal Displacement Contexts.108
Introduce a suite of legal protections to tackle forced marriage, including by criminalising all forms of modern slavery in line with international law and raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 with no exceptions.
Tackle underlying gender inequality by affording women equal rights in matters of divorce, inheritance, citizenship, and employment, and strengthen access to access to justice and freedom of movement for women and girls.