By Simona Sikimic
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
BEIRUT: Legislation prohibiting all kinds of human trafficking in Lebanon is expected to be passed very soon, Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar said Monday.
Speaking at an international conference on combating trafficking held at Beirut Arab University and supported by John Hopkins University, Najjar promised to push for the swift ratification of the draft law addressing the issue.
“Lebanon should not be a duty free country when it comes to the abuse and trafficking of women,” said Najjar. “I am willing to be very flexible to try and get this legislation through.”
The draft law was first submitted last year but voting has been delayed in part because of general political gridlock over how to handle issues surrounding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Lebanon has been party to the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children since 2005 but has failed to adopt legislation specifically prohibiting the practice, which affect some 27 million people globally and generates annual worldwide profits possibly in excess of $9 billion.
Women, children, non-ID individuals and foreign workers are considered to be most at risk but the practice can even be enforced on fellow nationals by increasingly unscrupulous organized crime rings, audience members heard.
Trafficked persons are subject to the worst kinds of abuse including forced prostitution and sexual exploitation, hard labor and even organ extractions for sale on the black market. Although Lebanon has several separate pieces of legislation covering these crimes, it has not enacted a comprehensive law to outlaw trafficking.
This leads to many judges failing to apply international legislation because it is not matched by national laws, Najjar explained. “How can I [approve] something as a crime when in my country it is not a crime,” he said.
Gaps in the legislation are apparent and are translating to extremely low conviction rates for human trafficking which is considered to be this third most profitable form of international smuggling after drugs and weapons.
In spite of its prevalence, however, there were only five prosecutions on the matter in Lebanon in 2009 and 2010, with only 12 trafficked persons – including two minors – being located by authorities, said Major Elie Asmar, head of the Interior Ministry’s moral protection bureau.
“Ninety-nine percent of this crime is known only after it happens and it is very difficult to catch culprits before they smuggle individuals [into the country],” said Asmar. “Almost all of this happens away from the public eye and is extremely secretive and conducted in a confidential way where it is difficult to detect.”
Secrecy makes it very difficult to ascertain true numbers of trafficked persons, but with Lebanon acting as a hotbed for foreign workers – with up to 600,000 estimated to be working in the country, often illegally – and the country acting as a gateway between exporter nations in Africa and Asia and recipient countries in Europe and elsewhere in Asia, the scope for abuse is large.
Trafficked persons overwhelmingly do not have access to, or are unwilling to speak to the authorities, Asmar said.
Many are not aware of their rights, think they have committed a crime and are scared that they will be prosecuted for entering the country illegally. Punishment for those caught trying to escape is often harsh and can include violent retribution being taken out on their families back home, Asmar added.
Major problems are also faced by those that do eventually come forward. With the present system affording virtually no protection for victims of trafficking, most are handed over to charity-run shelters such as Caritas where they are held until their cases can be tried or processed.
Indeed, the draft legislation has been criticized my many in the legal profession for not doing enough and failing to address integral issues of victim rehabilitation or money laundering which often accompanies the crime and is used to fund other illegal activity.
“Lebanon has to change the penal code,” said Lebanese Bar Association president Amal Haddad. “[But] texts are not enough … we also need a comprehensive national plan.”
By helping to sustain poverty levels and driving up crime, trafficking sustains and propels the very causes, such as unemployment, which bring it about, she explained.