“There are a few places in the Fish Market where you can find Iranian girls. Of course they are considered low class,” says an Iranian merchant, whom we will call Mohammad. “Al Raqa is better. Around the Jumeirah coast you can find Iranian girls as well.”

Mohammad has lived in Dubai for nearly a year and regularly travels between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). “I’ve been to these areas a few times. There are many shared houses in Al Raqa. Each house is partitioned and each partition has a bed. Usually there is a man who manages the house. The custom is that the girls go to the clubs and after an agreement is reached they take the client to one of those apartments.”

Mohammad, who admits to having had sex with prostitutes in Dubai a few times, reports that the cost of one visit is about 400 dirhams, or a little over $100, and if the client has no place of his own he must pay an extra 200 dirhams for the room. He has come across Iranian women many times. “They usually don’t want anyone to know that they are Iranian because many Iranian clients cheat them or don’t pay the amount the they have agreed on. So most speak English.”

Ali Sadeghi, the head of the Iranian Immigration and Passport Agency, does not deny that Iranian women have been victims of human trafficking to Arab countries. But he claims that that it does not occur regularly.  Since no reliable figures on the number of cases exist, talking to Dubai residents or eyewitnesses is the only way to gain information on the subject. Eyewitness accounts are the only evidence available for a number of reasons – those who know about what goes on fear legal penalties or being judged. The very nature of human trafficking is secretive and underground, making it difficult to glean information.

But this kind of evidence can be contradictory because individual experiences vary so widely.

Truth or Lie?

Erfan and Parisa [not their real names] have lived in Dubai for eight years. Erfan has researched the subject of Iranian sex workers in Dubai for a number of years and believes that human trafficking and prostitution can happen in any country; it is not an issue specific to life in Dubai. According to his wife Parisa, Emiratis are very well-off and have “no need” to engage in human trafficking. However, she says, she knows of women who come to Dubai legally under the pretext of taking “professional courses” such as hairdressing, and then engage in prostitution, returning to Iran after they have saved some money.

Erfan says Emiratis do not go to nightclubs; on the whole, clients of the few nightclubs that exist in UAE are tourists or expatriates. According to Mohammad, people wearing dishdasha, the traditional robe worn by Arab men in the Persian Gulf, are not permitted in nightclubs.

On the other hand, Ilia Jazayeri, an Iranian reporter who has traveled in Arab countries for many years, supports the claim that Iranian women are trafficked to Dubai. “There is a passage in the city of Qom, near Tehran, called Gold, which was once a booming centre for shopping,” she told Iranwire. “There was a dress shop in that passage that was run by a person nicknamed ‘Haji,’” an honourific title for respectable people or for those who have successfully completed their pilgrimage to Mecca. “He was one of those who warned young people about improper dress or hairdos. He also closed his shop on time in order to attend the mosque for prayers.”

“Then one day”, Ilia continues, “the police surrounded the passage and arrested Haji and his associates. Later it came to light that it was not a dress shop at all but the headquarters of a criminal band who smuggled women into Dubai.”

Jazayeri believes that in recent years that women who travel to work as a prositute have changed their destination. After travelling to Dubai for a number of years, they are now going to Iraqi Kurdistan, chiefly to the capital city of Erbil. “Some of these women get a 10-day ‘border’ visa, go to popular gathering places such a restaurants, and find a client for sex. The average nightly income is $100 and usually they return to Iran with $1,000 or $1,200 after a 10-day stay. For example, there is a motel in  Berayati Street in Erbil which is apparently used by girls from Iran and Syria. Such comings and goings are not very difficult and it is not necessary to use smugglers or establish specific connections to get across the border. They come legally by bus and get their visas at the border.”

The Two Groups

Mohammad believes that the issue of human trafficking to Dubai and the prostitution of Iranian women has been exaggerated. He classifies Iranian women who come to the UAE into two groups. The first is made up of underage girls who have been purchased by criminal gangs and are transported there. Of these, the pretty ones are sold to the country's emirs and sheikhs; if they are minors, they are adopted as children. The second group consists of young women who have come as tutors or nurses for children but whose passports have been confiscated by their employers. This so-called “voluntary” group comes to the UAE hoping to make the most money in the shortest time.

Under Emirati law, prostitution is illegal. Mohammad points out that laws on prostitution or drinking alcohol are inconsistent. “Yes, prostitution is a felony,” he says, “but unless somebody complains, the police do nothing about it. For example, if a group of women stand in front of a club, even if they are known to be prostitutes, police do not bother them. Sometimes a veiled Arab woman will complain about a German woman, for example, and the police will arrest her. Drinking alcohol is treated the same way. It is banned in the streets, but if you drink at home or in a club and come out in the street, they leave you alone.”

Around the world, according to a report by the International Labor Organization, there are close to 21 million women, men and children who suffer from some form of slavery. The non-profit organisation End Slavery Now has launched a campaign to bring this issue to the world’s attention. On the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called the acknowledgment of global slavery “vital”. “We [must] give special consideration,” he said, “to ending modern-day slavery and servitude which affects the poorest, most socially excluded groups – including migrants, women, discriminated ethnic groups, minorities and indigenous peoples.”

Malaysia: A New Destination?

According to some, Malaysia has become a new destination for prostitution and illegal immigration, particularly for Iranian women.

The trafficking of women "does not exist in Malaysia” as such, says “Ahmad”, a student who left Malaysia to live in Europe two years ago and whose family resides in Dubai. “Many women come voluntarily. Usually they have been encouraged in Iran to go to Australia, but the road to Australia goes through Malaysia or Indonesia. Their passports are held by the managers of houses where they reside and, after their visas expire, many of those managers threaten them with the police if they disobey. Since they want to emigrate, they don’t complain. Some are asked to pay more to emigrate. For example, if they had agreed to pay $4,000 to get to Australia, they are asked to pay $8,000 once their visa expires.”

According to Ahmad, prostitution in Malaysia is not “official”. Prostitutes frequent nightclubs and after attracting clients, accompany them to a hotel. Ahmad compares one street in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, to the Champs-Élysées in Paris; it's full of discos and most tourists wanting to buy sex go there.

The First Thing

“Income from prostitution in Malaysia is good,” says Ahmad, who worked in a restaurant while he was there. “One can get from 100 to 500 ringgits (about $31-$150). When busloads of Iranian tourists arrive, they take them to Iranian restaurants because east Asian food is not to their taste, and the first thing that they ask from Iranian waiters or managers are directions to brothels.”

In 2009, Malaysia was removed from the US State Department’s list of the most dangerous countries when it came to human trafficking. There is a real concern that it might make a return to the list. In the past few years, Malaysia has not done much to combat human trafficking. It could face economic sanctions as a result.

“Human trafficking in Malaysia comes in different shapes,” according to Luis CdeBaca, the United States Ambassador-at-Large tasked with combatting human trafficking. “One is the ordinary people who come to Malaysia to find a better life. The other is girls who are trapped and foreign workers who come to Malaysia for a higher income but are victimised by swindlers.”

There are no reliable statistics on the Iranian women who have been the victims of human trafficking. But if eyewitness accounts and reporters in the region are anything to go by, it is a reality hiding in plain sight. Discussing sex in Iran is a taboo and, as a result, the trafficking of women is not seriously analysed or publicised there, or in Malaysia.

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