Exploited and Forgotten: Migrant Workers and Forced Sex Work in Bahrain

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Bahrain has attracted a large expatriate population due to its economic opportunities. However, alongside its economic development, Bahrain faces significant challenges related to migration and sex work. This issue is complex, involving human trafficking, labor exploitation, and systemic inadequacies that put vulnerable migrant workers, particularly women, at risk.

Bahrain’s economy relies heavily on migrant labor, with expatriates making up a substantial portion of the workforce. Many migrants come from countries such as Ethiopia, the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and Kenya, often lured by promises of employment in domestic work or other low-skilled jobs. Upon arrival, however, many find themselves in precarious situations, stripped of their rights and subjected to exploitation.

A significant and troubling aspect of migration in Bahrain is the coercion of migrant workers into sex work. Women recruited for domestic work often have their passports confiscated upon arrival, a tactic used to control and trap them in situations of forced labor and sexual exploitation. This practice is part of a broader human trafficking network that exploits the vulnerabilities of migrant workers.

The U.S. State Department’s 2021 report gave Bahrain a Tier 1 status for meeting minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. However, this classification is controversial. Organizations like Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) argue that it fails to accurately reflect the pervasive issues of forced labor and sex trafficking in the country.

The Bahraini government has implemented several measures to combat human trafficking and protect migrant workers. These include the establishment of a National Human Trafficking Hotline, specialized committees to assess the status of trafficking victims, and legal reforms like the Wage Protection System (WPS) that mandates salary payments through bank transfers.

Despite these efforts, enforcement remains inconsistent. Prosecutions for trafficking offenses, particularly forced labor, are rare. The focus often remains on lower-level offenders, with systemic issues and higher-level facilitators going largely unaddressed. This lack of robust enforcement allows the cycle of exploitation to continue largely unchecked.

Addressing the issue of sex work and migration in Bahrain requires more than just legal reforms. It necessitates a systemic overhaul that includes stringent enforcement of existing laws, better regulation of recruitment agencies, and greater protection for migrant workers. The kafala system, which ties workers’ legal status to their employers, needs to be dismantled to provide workers with the freedom to change jobs and report abuses without fear of deportation.

The intersection of migration and sex work in Bahrain is a complex issue that highlights the vulnerabilities of migrant workers in the country. Despite legal frameworks and international commitments, enforcement gaps and systemic exploitation persist. To genuinely address these challenges, Bahrain must implement robust measures to protect migrant workers, prosecute traffickers, and provide comprehensive support to victims. Only through such efforts can the nation hope to eradicate the scourge of human trafficking and create a safer, more just environment for all its residents.