Saudi Diplomat Human Trafficking: Why Do Diplomats and the Wealthy Turn to Human Trafficking?

ByAna Maria Defillo

Last week, Jackie Bensen from News4 in Washington broke the story of a possible human-trafficking case at a Saudi diplomatic compound in McLean, Virginia. On April 30, two domestic workers from the Philippines were removed from the compound as potential victims of human trafficking, and an investigation is currently underway. CNN reports the women are claiming "the Saudi attaché kept their passports, made them work extremely long hours, and did not pay them."

The Department of Homeland Security confirmed the investigation to News4 and according to a State Department spokesperson, it’s in “very early stages and complicated by the possibility that some of those involved may have diplomatic immunity.” 

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This isn’t the first time a diplomat has been accused of human trafficking in the United States. In the last decade, we have seen an increase of stories reporting cases of foreign diplomats trafficking domestic workers into the United States. Special visas called A-3 visas make it easy for this exploitation to occur. These visas, specifically for employees of diplomats and their families, are dependent on an employment contract and are not under the provisions of U.S law or regulations. This means the contract "provides little protection from abuse" and has no governmental agency responsible for ensuring the contract’s obligations.

It's unbelievable that diplomats, agents of state institutions, would exploit such a practice to enslave a human being. Furthermore, why is this becoming a trend? What motivates or justifies diplomats to traffic workers into the United States? These sorts of cases complicate the view of a trafficker and the typical motivation given for trafficking of human beings, which is generally poverty, immorality, and organized crime. Diplomats do not fit under these neat categories so how do we explain this? Is it racial, class, or gender issues? Is it because they can get away with it? Diplomatic immunity prevents the diplomats from being prosecuted in U.S courts.  The most the victims can do to find justice is file an unenforceable civil law suit.

These types of cases expose how much more work needs to be done to combat human trafficking. The current focus on international human trafficking is very security-oriented, with campaigns to enforce stricter border controls and heavy prosecutions for the traffickers. This approach is problematic and alone cannot prevent or stop the insidious industry. The United States' anti-human trafficking policies are supposed to “free victims, prevent trafficking, and bring traffickers to justice.” Yet when translated into reality, the most enforced and funded policies are oriented towards the consequences of trafficking, not towards stopping trafficking itself.

We need to work on preventing human trafficking. In order to achieve this, we need to take a step back and map out human trafficking — who the victims are, who the traffickers are, and why. We must direct our research, policies, preventions, and interventions at the why behind human trafficking instead of reinforcing the harmful dichotomy of “criminals” and “helpless victims” seen in current campaigns. This gives a layer of agency to the victim and can help us better understand the bigger picture that will inevitably lead to more effective and efficient solutions.

Thoughts on how we can prevent human trafficking? Reach me @adefillo