A journalist seeking to write about human trafficking in the UAE has to understand that any writing seen as contrary to the government narrative is a punishable offense. The local press law prohibits criticism of the government and ruling family, and reserves the right to censor any publication. The 2012 cybercrime law further penalizes online activities which includes information sharing, digital journalism and social media. Punishments can range from fines to imprisonment without trial and outright deportation
Be extremely cautious with your digital security: locally-based and visiting foreign journalists have been detained and deported for attempting to cover migrant worker issues. Also keep in mind that, even if a piece’s tone and substance are not very strong, punishment is still possible. Even simple observations of the way workers are recruited to work in the UAE or referencing their working conditions can earn deportation or a prison term.
Finding and Pursuing Stories
While there is no law guaranteeing freedom of information, there are recognized avenues to attempt to access data and other information from government sources.
Government departments have public relations offices that can help give some information on cases related to human trafficking. All police departments in the Emirates have a media office, and police in Dubai and Sharjah also have a human trafficking department. The courts and public prosecutions in all Emirates also have labor offices which handle labor-related cases, and you can apply to review court documents.
Another main government source of information on human trafficking is the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, which is based in Abu Dhabi. While this committee will give only positive information on their efforts to combat trafficking, it is worth checking out.
The Ministry of Labor offices in Dubai and Sharjah occasionally publish reports of trafficking cases. While it might easier to follow up on some of the cases it publishes in local dailies, their offices are also a good place to connect with workers who have trafficking-related problems and are seeking to terminate their contracts to return home. These workers could speak to you once you win their confidence, using interpreters from the community; Speaking to trafficking victims it is better to speak their language.
Keep in mind that some officials in these offices are friendly and could provide information on specific cases they are handling. While English is widely spoken, many government officials speak mostly Arabic and very little English and are more comfortable sharing information related to sensitive topics like human trafficking in Arabic. Government sources will want to be reassured that the piece you are writing will not cause them any problems.
Remember, some officials will ask that you send the piece with their comments before you publish. While you can share their quotes and check facts, avoid sharing portions of your article.
Labor camps and construction work sites are information minefields. In order to visit workers’ accommodation, you need to know a worker staying there. You could try to come up with any name to give the security men at the entrance in order to pass, but this is private property so be cautious. You could be considered trespassing and prosecuted accordingly.
To approach workers outside of labor camps, consider the areas where they spend their day off: Baniyas square in Deira, the Gold Souq, bus stations like Al Sabha and the Dubai Creek on the weekends.
Brothels are common in all Emirates and can be a good source of information on trafficked victims. Almost every big community of Indians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Iranians and Ethiopians will have a brothel with women mostly trafficked from those countries. You will need extraordinary creativity to be able to talk to the women in the brothels without alarming them or alarming their pimps. (Also keep in mind the distinction between those trafficked into sex work, and sex workers generally.) Closely related to brothels are nightclubs. In Dubai, Baniyas Square and Khaled bin Waleed Street in Bur Dubai have the most nightclubs with women trafficked into sex work. While the EWA shelters for trafficked women does not release personal information, they can be useful for resource for general insights and leads.