Region Analysis

The Middle East and North Africa

  • 2,936,800 Estimate Number Enslaved
  • 6.4% Regional Proportion of Global Number
  • 45.0/100 Average Vulnerability Score
  • 32.7/100 Average Government Response Rating


How many people are in modern slavery in The Middle East and North Africa?

As violent conflict escalates and political, economic, social and security spillovers destabilise many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the profile of victims vulnerable to modern slavery has shifted. Though MENA continues to act as a destination for men and women from Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa who are attracted to the region with promises of wellpaying jobs, increasingly Middle Easterners themselves faced exploitation and slavery in 2016. Victims were identified as forced recruits in state and non-state armed groups, as victims of forced marriage and victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Foreign and local citizens were subject to forced labour and debt bondage in service sectors such as domestic work, cleaning, and as drivers and restaurant workers, as well as in construction, agriculture and mechanics.

Regional Findings of Prevalence


Estimate number enslaved

Regional Proportion of Global Number


Children in Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen were recruited, trained and deployed in violent conflict. There were increasingly grave reports of children being used as suicide bombers, informants, bomb makers and human shields. There are reports of families selling disabled children to Islamic State (IS) in Iraq[1] and online videos showing very young children carrying out assassinations through beheading and shooting.[2] UNICEF estimates a fivefold increase in the recruitment of children in Yemen's civil war, meaning that a third of combatants are children.[3]

There are verified reports of women and children being captured, sold into slavery and held in barbarous conditions by IS. In 2014, IS captured 3,000 women and children, mostly from the Kurdish-speaking Yazidi minority group—the largest single capture of women this century. IS propaganda claimed that the captured Yazidi women and girls were 'spoils of war' to be divided among fighters.[4] Publications released by IS[5] provide an extreme interpretation of Shari'a describing the legality and illegalities of dealing with slaves—"it is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of..." This alarming resurgence of slavery is evident in Raqqa, the self-proclaimed IS capital, and surrounding IS-occupied territory where women can be bought and sold at the market. There are reports of IS offering to sell women back to their families for as much as US$40,000.[6]

Forced marriage of children and women continues to be an issue. The phenomenon of 'temporary' or 'tourist' marriages whereby men, often from the Gulf States, travel abroad and temporarily take a wife for the duration of their vacation has been identified in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and India.[7] In some cases, child brides are forcibly married by their parents for economic gain. Children as young as 11 have been sold into temporary marriages in Egypt. These temporary religious marriages bind the girl to her husband for an agreed time frame—often days or weeks at a time, sometimes only hours—but do not afford the child or woman any legal rights. This leaves them vulnerable to domestic servitude and prostitution and, in many cases, denies citizenship to any subsequent offspring.[8] In Morocco, the 2014 census revealed more than 100,000 child brides,[9] some of whom may have been married without free and informed consent. Refugee children from Syria and Iraq have been forcibly married by desperate parents trying to ensure their economic security and protect them from the threat of sexual violence.[10]

Migrant workers from Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa continue to flock to MENA for work. In 2015 there were reports that Thai nationals were exploited on Israeli farms;[11] Filipina, Nepali, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Ugandan, Kenyan, Ethiopian and Mauritanian women were abused in private homes;[12] and Indian, Nepali, Pakistani and Bangladeshi men were exploited in the construction of resorts, museums, stadiums and infrastructure in UAE and Qatar.[13] Migrant workers are subject to practices that may amount to forced labour including extortionate recruitment fees, illegal confiscation of identity documents, withholding and non-payment of salaries, hazardous working conditions, unhygienic living conditions, unlawful overtime performed under the threat of deportation, and physical and sexual abuse.

In 2015, in an IOM and Walk Free study of 162 exploited migrant workers from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, 100 percent of workers had their identity documents withheld, 87 percent were confined to their workplace and 76 percent had their wages withheld.

Though not representative of all cases, this data points to worryingly widespread abuse and the ineffectiveness of law enforcement to quash these illegal but culturally-accepted practices.[14]

Before the violence escalated, migrant workers in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen were already vulnerable to forced labour and debt bondage commensurate with regional trends. However, the current crisis has magnified these issues and introduced new risks and threats. In mid-2014, hundreds of South Asian migrant workers in Iraq were caught in the crossfire between the Iraqi military and IS. Those wanting to leave the country faced a difficult situation as employers retained worker passports. Reports of IS holding migrant workers in situations of debt bondage in Iraq have emerged since their rise to prominence in 2014, as well as their use for forced labour, sexual exploitation and as human shields in conflict.[15] Though many labour-sending countries repatriated workers from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, concerning reports of South Asian workers accepting jobs in the Gulf but then being deceptively sent to countries in conflict by brokers continue to emerge in 2016.[16] Refugees fleeing conflict, including children, were subject to forced labour in the agricultural sectors of neighbouring countries, particularly Lebanon, while Egyptian men continue to be exploited on Jordanian farms.

RankCountryEstimated percent of population in modern slaveryEstimated number in modern slaveryPopulation
7United Arab Emirates0.40437,0009,157,000
9Saudi Arabia0.29292,10031,540,000
RankCountryEstimated percent of population in modern slaveryEstimated number in modern slaveryPopulation

Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth largest producer of cotton. During the annual cotton harvest, citizens are subjected to statesanctioned forced labour. Monitoring by international organisations has meant the government has begun to take steps to improve the situation, however, reports from the 2015 harvest estimate that over one million people were forced to work.

Photo credit, Simon Buxton/Anti-Slavery International


What factors explain or predict the prevalence of modern slavery in The Middle East and North Africa?

In 2016, conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Palestine and Yemen, coupled with terrorist attacks in Algeria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Israel and Egypt, has created a catastrophic humanitarian situation. There is a strong statistical link between high levels of instability within a country and an increase in that population's vulnerability to modern slavery.[17] In cases of armed conflict, there is often a corresponding weakening of the rule of law, providing fertile ground for traffickers to profit with impunity.[18] The demand for the State to respond to other humanitarian emergencies, coupled with few specific human-trafficking services or organisations in these countries, means that protection of vulnerable migrants and support for victims of human trafficking in times of crisis is limited.[19] In 2015, the IOM and Walk Free found that the unprecedented displacement of Syrian and Iraqi populations has had a trifold effect on neighbouring host countries[20] : (a) increased competition for low-paying jobs and employment in the informal economy; (b) increased incidence of all forms of modern slavery, such as child labour, forced begging and forced early marriage; and (c) reduced capacity of State actors to respond to trafficking cases because already scarce resources are outlaid on the emergency provision of services to refugees instead of supporting migrant workers.[21]

Average Vulnerability Score


Though the number of refugees seeking international protection in Europe and further afield is increasing in 2016, Syria and Iraq's neighbouring countries continue to host almost 90 percent of the displaced population.[22] More than 142,000 Syrian children born in exile are vulnerable to statelessness and more than 750,000 children are not in school[23] —worrying indicators of future risk to early marriage and human trafficking. In a 2016 IOM study of migrating Iraqis, 80 percent of respondents indicated 'no hope in the future' as the main reason for fleeing.[24] This reveals the desperation to resettle in secure environments, and may go some way to understanding the mindset of parents' decisions to marry daughters off in the hope of securing a better future for their child.

While not directly responsible for the prevalence of modern slavery, the kafala sponsorship system, which effectively ties a migrant worker's legal status to the employer, increases vulnerability to exploitation. Under the system, the migrant's right to work and live in the host country is dependent on the sponsor. In most GCC states, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon where the kafala system exists, workers are unable to enter or leave the country, or seek alternative employment, without their sponsor's written consent. An attempt to leave an exploitative situation may result in the worker being criminalised for 'absconding', including possible detention and deportation.

Xenophobic attitudes towards foreign workers from Asia and SubSaharan Africa persist in MENA. There is subtle stigmatisation that certain low- and un-skilled jobs, particularly manual work and roles considered dirty or dangerous, are only appropriate for non-locals.[25] Language barriers fuel the notion among the local population that workers are uneducated and therefore inferior.[26] Women in MENA continue to face discrimination in both law and practice, particularly regarding personal status and nationality rights. The unequal status of women is felt most keenly in Saudi Arabia where women are considered legal minors and remain subordinate to men, requiring permission from male guardians to work, study, travel and receive health care.[27] Domestic violence is widespread, with most countries in the region lacking adequate protection for victims of abuse within the home, and marital rape is not explicitly criminalised.

Migrant domestic workers face the double discrimination threat of being both female and a migrant. Many domestic workers continue to report serious physical and psychological abuse including threats of and actual beatings, burning with hot irons, food deprivation, sexual harassment and rape.[28] Migrant victims of sexual assault risk stigma and, in some countries, prosecution for illegal extramarital sexual relations.[29] In a number of countries, a woman's testimony in court is worth half a man's,[30] police discount women's statements when refuted by male employers, and judges routinely sentence women for immorality and adultery stemming from associated sexual abuse claims. Being a woman not only increases vulnerability to being exploited but perpetuates victimisation once trapped.

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 2015. Houda (14 years old) pictured with her teddy bear. She left Syria (Raqqa) four years ago and she got married about one year ago. She lives in the Bekaa Valley with her family while her husband works and lives in Beirut. Her husband stays with her only on the weekend. Approximately 1.3 million refugees are officially registered in Lebanon. Marriages in refugee camps often involve girls of 11 to 13 years, but can include more extreme cases of girls as young as nine years old.

Photo credit, Laura Aggio Caldon

CountryCivil & Political ProtectionsSocial, Health, & Economic RightsPersonal SecurityRefugees & ConflictMean
Saudi Arabia64.9430.9237.2028.8440.47
United Arab Emirates41.7122.6430.7518.3628.37
CountryCivil & Political ProtectionsSocial, Health, & Economic RightsPersonal SecurityRefugees & ConflictMean

From the 'Less than Human' series. A large cargo boat is seen in Songkla Port, Thailand. 09/03/2014. Photographer Chris Kelly worked undercover to expose the link between prawns being sold in big name supermarkets, and the slaves who live and work on Thai fishing boats miles out to sea.

Photo credit, Chris Kelly

Government Response

How are governments in The Middle East and North Africa tackling modern slavery?

In 2015, governments in MENA faced challenges responding to modern slavery but continued to take steps to increase public awareness, build and enhance shelter services, and improve national laws. In some countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, scores reflected the infancy of policies and laws, with further action required from a range of stakeholders to improve effective national responses. Low scores in other countries, such as Oman and Saudi Arabia, reflected limited political will to recognise the existence of all forms of modern slavery.

Average Government Response Rating


Most countries had undertaken a basic human trafficking awareness campaign once in the past five years to educate the general public. This ranged from radio and television campaigns in Lebanon and the UAE to awareness campaigns in Kuwait's largest mall.[31] With the support of international organisations, often the IOM, law enforcement officers and the judiciary were trained on human trafficking, victim identification and national legislation in most of the countries in the region.

While effective public awareness campaigns and training of stakeholders are essential to combating modern slavery, efforts so far have not translated to broad attitudinal shifts in the community. This is particularly so for employers of domestic workers who, despite the illegality of the practice, continue to withhold worker's passports. Research conducted by the IOM and Walk Free in 2015 found that this was standard practice.[32]

Governments performed well in creating basic national legal frameworks to criminalise modern slavery of workers. Thirteen of the 14 states[33] had ratified or acceded to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol) which obligates states to criminalise human trafficking. Indeed, most countries in the region have legislation criminalising some forms of trafficking, with countries like Egypt and Jordan going beyond the Palermo Protocol definition by adding the offence of forced begging.[34] Human trafficking continues to be a 'legally invisible' issue in Morocco with the absence of legislation specifically criminalising it. In 2015, a draft law was prepared and currently awaits adoption.[35]

Despite the existence of legislation, prosecution for trafficking crimes remains low across the region. An inability and, at times, an unwillingness to identify differences between poor labour practices and situations of forced labour, coupled with a tendency to favour employer rights, means worker's rights are routinely overlooked.[36] Many domestic and agricultural workers continue to be excluded from labour law protections.

In 2015, Kuwait adopted a new law granting domestic workers enforceable labour rights, a key milestone considering migrant domestic workers constitute nearly a third of the country's entire workforce.[37]

Governments across the region should similarly adopt legislation guaranteeing labour rights for domestic workers.

As global scrutiny of labour practices in the UAE and Qatar increases prior to large-scale international events—the World Expo 2020 and FIFA World Cup 2022, respectively—both governments made legislative amendments to address migrant worker exploitation. In September 2015, the UAE issued Ministerial Decree's mandating employers to use and register standard contracts signed by employees to eliminate contract substitution. A further Decree allowed for termination of contracts by employees without employer consent in certain cases.[38]

In October 2015, the Emir of Qatar announced reforms to the kafala system, eliminating an employee's obligation to obtain their sponsor's permission to change jobs or travel abroad, instead requiring the Ministry of Interior to approve these movements.

The Ministry must still obtain the employer's consent for employee movement, but workers will have a right to appeal if permission is denied.[39]

Disappointingly, the legislative improvements do not apply to domestic workers in either the UAE or Qatar, further entrenching the marginalised status of this cohort. The pressure on Qatar to successfully implement these legislative changes mounted in March 2016 when the United Nations' International Labour Organization issued Qatar a warning to end migrant worker slavery or face a UN investigation.[40]

Within the region, governments did little to stop sourcing goods and services that use modern slavery, mirroring global findings of insufficient action addressing the link between modern slavery and poor business practices. Dubai, 'the city of gold', trades in approximately 40 percent of the gold flowing into international markets. Despite extensive evidence of the use of child and forced labour in the mining of gold, particularly in Burkina Faso, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea and Ghana,[41] only a voluntary standard on responsible sourcing exists which does not address child labour.[42]

Within countries across the region, there remained a concerning lack of coordination and accountability, and a mounting need to address risk factors. Combating modern slavery competed with key national and regional priorities such as combating terrorism, dealing with internal and regional displacement, ensuring economic stability and finding solutions to regional security.[43] Despite this, some governments in the region have the political security and financial ability to reform current practices and implement effective policies. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar, in particular, can and should do more to improve their troublingly low response scores.

Indonesian Government acts against forced labour in fishing

For the first time in history, on 2 December 2014—the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery—leaders of the world’s largest faiths came together to declare their common humanitarian commitment to eradicate modern slavery. The Islamic faith was represented by Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al- Azhar (Muslim Sunni), Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi (Muslim Shia) and Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Basheer Hussain al-Najafi (Muslim Shia).[44]

The three Islamic leaders asserted that all forms of slavery were reprehensible in Islamic law. The Grand Imam of Al- Azhar rejected assertions that the Quran’s instructions to treat slaves with kindness and care legitimised slavery. Instead, he said, Islam took a sympathetic approach to the treatment of slaves as a temporary solution to historical slavery, which in no way sanctions modern-day exploitation of people.[45]

Further displays of commitment were made in 2015 by Islamic leaders in the region to extend Islamic values of hospitality and care to vulnerable migrants, remedy their ill-treatment in employment, and address their inequality at law. In September 2015, Sheikh Ali Al Quradaghi, Secretary-General of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, called for equal pay for individuals doing the same work regardless of their nationality, compensating employees fairly by considering the cost of living in the host country, and giving domestic workers the same rights as other migrants by including them under labour laws.[46]

The MENA region has the highest concentration of Muslims in the world—an estimated 93 percent of its approximately 341 million inhabitants are Muslim.[47] A key way to combat these crimes is for religious leaders to encourage their followers to support the abolition of exploitative practices.

Credit RatingCountrySurvivors SupportedCriminal JusticeCoordination & AccountabilityAddressing RiskGovernment & BusinessTotal Score
BUnited Arab Emirates63.8936.6756.2557.140.0049.71
CCSaudi Arabia28.7034.4425.0038.100.0028.70
Credit RatingCountrySurvivors SupportedCriminal JusticeCoordination & AccountabilityAddressing RiskGovernment & BusinessTotal Score

Rajshahi, Bangladesh, January 2013. Dipa is 13 years old and has been engaged in prostitution for five months. She used to go to school, but stopped in class three after her family could no longer afford to send her. Her two sisters are also engaged in prostitution, but clients prefer to visit Dipa as she is the youngest of the three. She gets between four or five clients and earns about 1,200 Taka (US$15) a day.

Photo credit, Pep Bonet/ NOOR


  1. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Committee on the Rights of the Child, 'Concluding observations on the report submitted by Iraq under article 8, paragraph 1, of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict', (United Nations, 2015), p. 5, accessed 12/01/2016:
  2. Lizzie Dearden, 'Isis Kidnaps up to 500 Children in Iraq to use as Suicide Bombers and Child Soldiers,' The Independent, June 1, 2015, accessed 22/07/2015:
  3. 'Yemen Children Bearing the Brunt of Brutal Conflict', UNICEF, April 10, 2016, accessed 14/04/2016:
  4. 'Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape, Yezidi Survivors in Need of Urgent Care,' Human Rights Watch, April 14, 2015, accessed 22/07/2015:
  5. 'Islamic State (ISIS) Releases Pamphlet on Female Slaves,' MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor, December 4, 2014, accessed 25/07/2015:
  6. Personal communication. 
  7. 'Saudi Arabia Grappling with the Surge in Temporary Marriage,' Al Arabiya, April 18, 2015, accessed 14/04/2016:
  8. Sarah El Masry, 'Under-reported and underage: Early marriage in Egypt', Daily News Egypt, December 5, 2012,
  9. 'Over 100,000 Underage Girls are Married in Morocco,' Morocco World News, 14 October 2015,
  10. Too Young to Wed: The Growing Problem of Child Marriage Among Syrian Girls in Jordan, (Save the Children, 2014), accessed 14/04/2016:
  11. 'Israel: Serious Abuse of Thai Migrant Workers,' Human Rights Watch, January 21, 2015, accessed 14/04/2016:
  12. 'Hundreds of Mauritanian Women Trafficked to Saudi Arabia Trapped in 'Slavery'', Middle East Eye, September 30, 2015, accessed 13/04/2016: ; see also My sleep is my break: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Qatar, (Amnesty International, 2014), accessed 25/06/2014: ; see also Samantha McCormack, Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, Hana Abul Husn, The Other Migrant Crisis: Protecting Migrant Workers Against Exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa, (IOM and the Walk Free Foundation, December 2015), accessed 14/04/2016: ; see also 'Kenyan Domestic Workers 'abused in Saudi Arabia'', BBC, September 1, 2015, accessed 14/04/2016: ; see also 'The Aftershocks: Migrant Workers Vulnerable to Exploitation in Post-Earthquake Nepal', London School of Economics and Political Science, October 22, 2015, accessed 13/03/2016:,,,, ,
  13. The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on a Qatar 2022 World Cup Site, (Amnesty International, 2016), accessed 14/04/2016:
  14. Samantha McCormack, Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, Hana Abul Husn, The Other Migrant Crisis: Protecting Migrant Workers Against Exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa, (IOM and the Walk Free Foundation, December 2015), accessed 14/04/2016:
  15. As above.
  16. Personal communication. 
  17. Global Slavery Index, (The Walk Free Foundation, 2014), accessed 14/04/2016:
  18. L. Lungarotti, S. Craggs, A. Tillinac, Trafficking in persons in times of crises ‒ a neglected protection concern: the case of Iraq, (Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute, Oct 2015). 
  19. As above. 
  20. Specifically Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. 
  21. Samantha McCormack, Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, Hana Abul Husn, The Other Migrant Crisis: Protecting Migrant Workers Against Exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa, (IOM and the Walk Free Foundation, December 2015), accessed 14/04/2016:
  22. Europe; Syrian Asylum Applications from Apr 2011 to Jan 2016, Syrian Regional Refugee Response, Inter-Agency Information Sharing Portal, UNHCR, accessed 13/04/2016. 
  23. 3RP Regional Progress Report June 2015, 3RP Regional Refugee & Resilience Plan 2015–2016 in Response to the Syria Crisis. 
  24. Migration Flows from Iraq to Europe February, (International Organization for Migration, Displacement Tracking and Monitoring, 2016) accessed 14/04/2016. 
  25. Samantha McCormack, Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, Hana Abul Husn, The Other Migrant Crisis: Protecting Migrant Workers Against Exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa, (IOM and the Walk Free Foundation, December 2015), accessed 14/04/2016:
  26. As above.
  27. Human Rights Watch World Report, (Human Rights Watch, 2015), accessed 14/04/2016:
  28. Samantha McCormack, Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, Hana Abul Husn, The Other Migrant Crisis: Protecting Migrant Workers Against Exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa, (IOM and the Walk Free Foundation, December 2015), accessed 14/04/2016:
  29. As above.
  30. See UNICEF Regional Gender Equality profiles:
  31. Faten Omar, 'The Avenues Mall Holds Awareness Campaign for Human Trafficking', Kuwait Times, September 3, 2015, accessed 14/04/2016:
  32. Samantha McCormack, Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, Hana Abul Husn, The Other Migrant Crisis: Protecting Migrant Workers Against Exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa, (IOM and the Walk Free Foundation, December 2015), accessed 14/04/2016:
  33. Iran has not ratified the Protocol. 
  34. Arab Republic of Egypt, The People's Assembly,' Law No. (64) of 2010 regarding Combating Human Trafficking'. Available from
  35. 'New draft law to combat human trafficking brings hope in Morocco,' UN Women, September 9, 2015, accessed 12/04/2016,
  36. Samantha McCormack, Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, Hana Abul Husn, The Other Migrant Crisis: Protecting Migrant Workers Against Exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa, (IOM and the Walk Free Foundation, December 2015), accessed 14/04/2016:
  37. 'Kuwait: New Law a Breakthrough for Domestic Workers,' Human Rights Watch, June 30, 2015, accessed 15/05/2016:
  38. 'UAE: A Move to Protect Migrant Workers,' Human Rights Watch, November 1, 2015, accessed 14/04/2016:
  39. Peter Kovessyriham Sheble and Heba Fahmy, 'Qatar's Emir signs into kafala changes (updated),' Doha News, October 27, 2015, accessed 20/04/2016:
  40. Robert Booth, 'UN Gives Qatar a Year to End Forced Labour of Migrant Workers,' The Guardian, accessed 15/04/2016:
  41. Bureau of International Labor Affairs, List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, (US Department of Labor), accessed 14/04/2016:
  42. Juliane Kippenberg, 'Child Labor in in Dubai's Gold Supply Chain,' Human Rights Watch, April 12, 2016, accessed 14/04/2016:
  43. Samantha McCormack, Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, Hana Abul Husn, The Other Migrant Crisis: Protecting Migrant Workers Against Exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa, (IOM and the Walk Free Foundation, December 2015), accessed 14/04/2016:


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