June 2012

BAHRAIN (Tier 2 Watch List)

Bahrain is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Men and women from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and Eritrea migrate voluntarily to Bahrain to work as domestic workers or as unskilled laborers in the construction and service industries. Some, however, face conditions of forced labor after arriving in Bahrain, through the use of such practices as unlawful withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, contract substitution, nonpayment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse. NGOs report that Bangladeshi unskilled workers are in particularly high demand in Bahrain and are considered exploitable since they do not typically protest difficult work conditions or low pay. Domestic workers are also considered to be highly vulnerable to forced labor and sexual exploitation because they are not protected under the labor law. Government and NGO officials report that abuse and sexual assault of domestic workers are significant problems in Bahrain; however, strict confinement to the household and intimidation by employers prevent these workers from reporting abuse. A study by the Bahrain government’s Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) found that 65 percent of migrant workers had not seen their employment contract and that 89 percent were unaware of their terms of employment upon arrival in Bahrain. Many labor recruitment agencies in Bahrain and source countries require workers to pay high recruitment fees – a practice that makes workers highly vulnerable to forced labor once in Bahrain. The LMRA study found that 70 percent of foreign workers borrowed money or sold property in their home countries in order to secure a job in Bahrain. Some Bahraini employers illegally charge workers exorbitant fees to remain in Bahrain working for third-party employers (under the “free visa” arrangement). In previous years, the LMRA has estimated that approximately 10 percent of migrant workers were in Bahrain under illegal “free visa” arrangements – a practice that can contribute to debt bondage – while the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry puts the figure at 25 percent. Women from Thailand, the Philippines, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Ukraine, China, Vietnam, and Eastern European states are subjected to forced prostitution in Bahrain.

The Government of Bahrain does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Despite these efforts, the government did not show evidence of an overall increase in efforts to address human trafficking over the previous year, despite past commitments and pledges to proactively address and respond to human trafficking in Bahrain. The government did not reform the migrant worker sponsorship system, which continues to give employers inordinate power over foreign workers and contributes to forced labor and debt bondage. Indeed, rather than reforming this system, the government adopted a law that increases the minimum amount of time a worker must remain with an employer, thus expanding the length of time a worker could be held under conditions of forced labor. There was no indication that the Government of Bahrain took steps to institute a formal victim identification procedure, so few victims were assisted by the government. Nevertheless, the government continued to investigate and prosecute a few trafficking offenses during the reporting period. In addition, the government offered two amnesties for out-of-status foreign workers to return to their home countries with no fines or penalties against them.

Recommendations for Bahrain:

Continue to enforce the 2008 anti-trafficking law, and significantly increase the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenses – particularly those involving forced labor – and convictions and punishment of trafficking offenders; reform the sponsorship system to eliminate obstacles to migrant workers’ access to legal recourse for complaints of forced labor; vigorously investigate all credible trafficking tips secured through the anti-trafficking hotline; institute and apply formal procedures to identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers who have fled from abusive employers and women in prostitution; refer identified victims to protection services; expand the government-run shelter to protect all victims of trafficking, including victims of forced labor and male victims of trafficking; ensure that the shelter does not inappropriately restrict victims’ movement and that shelter staff are qualified and speak the languages of expatriate workers; ensure that identified victims of trafficking are not punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, such as illegal migration or prostitution; continue to publicly raise awareness of trafficking issues and the anti-trafficking hotline number in the media and other outlets for foreign migrants, and specifically, domestic workers, and extend labor law protections to domestic workers to ensure that they have the same protections under the law as other expatriate workers.


The Government of Bahrain made limited efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict trafficking offenses during the reporting period, but made no efforts to conduct and fund anti-trafficking training for government and police officials. The 2008 Law to Combat Trafficking in Persons prohibits all forms of trafficking in persons and prescribes penalties ranging from three to 15 years’ imprisonment, which are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The Government of Bahrain investigated 18 trafficking cases, five of which resulted in convictions during the reporting period; however, given the government’s conflation of people smuggling and human trafficking, it is not known how many of these convictions, if any, involved human trafficking offenses. The media reported possibly negligent deaths of foreign workers in labor camps due to carbon monoxide poisoning and electrical fires; it is unclear whether the government investigated these deaths. The government also did not report efforts to investigate government complicity in trafficking offenses. The government did not provide funding for or conduct anti-trafficking training for its officials during the reporting period; however, officials participated in two foreign government-sponsored anti-trafficking trainings. Bahraini government officials indicate there is a general lack of awareness of trafficking crimes among working-level police.


The Government of Bahrain made minimal progress in improving protection for victims of trafficking over the last year, although the government continued to lack systematic procedures to identify victims among vulnerable groups, such as migrant domestic workers who have left their employers or women arrested for prostitution. As a result, potential trafficking victims may have been charged with employment or immigration violations, detained, and deported without adequate protection. Most migrant workers who were able to flee their abusive employers were frequently charged as “runaways,” sentenced to two weeks’ detention, and deported. The government continued to fund a 120-bed NGO-run shelter called Dar al Aman, which is described as serving victims of family violence, but there is no evidence to suggest that this shelter served trafficking victims. NGOs reported knowledge of 128 victims of trafficking during the 2011 calendar year, some of which were referred by the government. The majority of victims continued to seek shelter at their embassies or at the shelter operated by an NGO. Many police officers remained unfamiliar with procedures for referring victims of labor abuse and human trafficking to these shelters. In previous years, an international NGO reported that the shelter restricted residents’ freedom of movement, was not staffed with qualified personnel, and did not provide long-term shelter or housing benefits to victims; it was not known whether this was the case during 2011. There remained no shelters or other protection services provided by the government for male trafficking victims. Human Rights Watch documented seven cases of foreign residents prohibited from leaving Bahrain due to debts or contractual obligations with their employers; moreover, these workers were barred from working to pay off their creditors or even pay for basic needs such as housing and health care. However, to attempt to remedy this situation, the LMRA organized two major amnesties for out-of-status migrant workers to be repatriated to their home countries with no fines or charges against them. The Government of Bahrain encouraged victims to participate in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers; however, workers typically did not file court cases against employers due to fear or ignorance of the law, distrust of the legal system, inability to afford legal representation, lack of interpretation and translation provided by courts, fear of losing residency permits during legal proceedings, and to avoid additional maltreatment at the hands of the employer. The government did not provide foreign victims with legal alternatives for their removal to countries where they faced retribution or hardship. The Ministry of Interior continued to operate a toll-free hotline for trafficking victims, but officials noted a significant drop in the number of calls the hotline received in 2011. The LMRA also operates an abuse hotline during working hours and coordinates with NGOs who staff 24-hour information lines to provide legal advice to workers.


The government made some efforts to prevent trafficking in persons during the reporting period. In 2011, the government instituted an interagency committee to monitor and identify human trafficking issues. The LMRA disseminates trafficking-related information to vulnerable workers through media outlets, including through local and satellite television channels; it also conducts radio shows in Hindi and English to educate workers on their rights and how they can resolve issues. While Bahrain’s Ministry of Labor has pledged for several years to end the sponsorship (kafala) system – which contributes greatly to forced labor and debt bondage – it has not abolished this structure to meaningfully prevent trafficking in persons. Earlier reforms of the sponsorship system to regulate labor recruitment and expand worker mobility continue to exclude Bahrain’s approximately 70,000 domestic workers, the group that is most vulnerable to trafficking. In addition, the 2010 labor law does not afford basic protections to domestic workers. Moreover, the law against withholding workers’ passports – a common practice that restricts the mobility of migrant workers and contributes to forced labor – was not enforced effectively. In June 2011, the government issued Law 15, which mandates a foreign worker must complete a minimum of one year of work with an employer before transferring to a different employer. This law lengthens the minimum amount of time a worker must remain with an employer, which also expands the length of time a worker could be held under conditions of forced labor. The government reported no efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex.