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For migrants and forced laborers, help might be a decade away

The UN congress on crime and justice aims to fix migration and forced labor issues, but no date set for solutions

DOHA, Qatar — A United Nations Congress on crime and justice that takes place once every five years is precisely the catchall event one would imagine. It's a lot to pack into eight days, even after the adoption of the Doha Declaration, a document aimed at strengthening international crime-fighting mechanisms.

Narcotics trafficking? Check. Cybercrime? Yes. Counter-terrorism efforts? Indeed.  Piracy on the high seas? Of course. Crimes against, men, women, children and wildlife? Sure.

Some topics seemed more dominant than others, and the rather broad issue of migration/labor was among them.

The subject seems especially urgent as this congress is taking place in a Gulf state where rights groups have criticized the treatment of migrant workers. It’s also not too far from Libya, where smugglers pack rickety boats with hundreds of migrants and point them toward Italian shores.

The lucky ones are plucked from the Mediterranean Sea by the Italian Navy and Coast Guard; the unlucky ones either drown or are left for dead in the desert by smugglers.

Italy, owing to nothing more than its proximity to Libya, has seen its southern coast, dotted with small towns and matching resources, flooded with migrants over the past four years, with 2015 already showing a steady movement of people making the journey.

According to the International Organization for Migration, nearly 8,000 people have been rescued off the coast of Italy since the beginning of April. By April 14, the number of migrants that reached Italy is almost 18,000 since the start of the year, with 500 fatalities so far this year.

The scope of these numbers weighs heavily on Italy’s Justice Minister, Andrea Orlando, who was in Doha talking about the importance of the rule of law in human rights. But where is the rule of law in the crisis his country is facing?

"We have underlined the fact that it is a fundamental precondition to rebuild the rule of law in origin and transit countries of immigration," Orlando told Al Jazeera.

He admits that policies – mostly politically motivated – aimed at preventing the boats from arriving “cannot be successful and lead to serious human rights violations,” which is why he is hoping the UN and its member states can compel Libya to crackdown on the smugglers.

Appearing to stifle a sigh, Orlando said progress and good news have been hard to come by.

"The only positive number is the number of lives recued with Mare Nostrum," he said, referring to the operation aimed at intercepting migrant boats while they are still at sea.

Slow – very slow – remedies

There are numerous – often simultaneous – sessions dealing with all aspects of migrants, forced labor and human trafficking.

A session on forced labor in Europe seemed oddly promising, what with the region housing a small share, 7 percent, of the global market, according to Anti-Slavery International, an independent, UK-based rights group.

The panelists spoke about mechanisms that would allow an abused employee to speak to someone, such as and NGO or a trade union, things that simply don’t function in many of the “receiving” or destination.

When asked which of these mechanisms might apply to countries in Asia and Africa, - regions that hold far larger shares of world market of forced labor – the specifics were too complicated to share.

Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the UN Special Rapporteur on human trafficking with a focus on women and children, said, “Some mechanisms are surprisingly similar in different areas of the world, especially concerning destination countries.” 

In the audience, Professor Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational and Corruption Center at George Mason University, felt the panel represented a missed opportunity and that the discussion could have used "some balance."

"In that room, half the people there were coming from countries that were sending county or some of them were from receiving countries and there was almost no time for discussion -  there was an Indian who won the Nobel prize this year for fighting child trafficking…it’s not like every sending country is incapable of doing things," she said, referring to Kailash Satyarthi, who won a 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in fighting the exploitation of children.

Myriam Khaldi, an access-to-justice expert with Lawyers Without Borders-Belgique, said that the session was likely intended to “sensitize state delegates” – of whom there were few in the room, as the workshop, held in of the smaller rooms in the cavernous, shiny, Qatar National Convention Centre, was sparsely attended. 

"Some of these guidelines were very useful to prevent these kinds of labor-trafficking behavior – it’s something important to conceptualize, but it’s not enough," she said.

Nor are the remedies and solutions – even ones that work – fast.

"It depends on the governments, authorities, budgets or financial resources, but it won’t be one year or five years…it’ll take like, five to 10 years to see results," said Khaldi.

It's doubtful the thousands of people migrating for survival or a job that may or may not be what they signed on for can afford to wait.

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