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Oman (Tier 2)

The Government of Oman does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Oman remained on Tier 2. These efforts included establishing a specialized court for trafficking cases, investigating more alleged trafficking crimes, and prosecuting and convicting more traffickers than in previous years. For the first time, the government identified male victims and expanded shelter services to accommodate them. The government also continued to implement its decision to eliminate the “no objection certificate” (NOC), which allowed all workers to change jobs without employer permission at the end of a contract. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government did not investigate, prosecute or, for the fourth consecutive year, convict any traffickers of forced labor of migrant workers, including domestic servitude. It continued to routinely use arbitration and administrative penalties to resolve grievances filed by migrant workers, including domestic workers, instead of investigating such cases as human trafficking crimes. The government also continued to require potential trafficking victims to have active trials to remain in the government’s shelter. Despite continued reports that Omani employers’ subject migrant workers to conditions of forced labor, authorities did not convict any Omani nationals for trafficking crimes during the year. Finally, although it developed a national referral mechanism (NRM) during the year, the government had not yet operationalized the NRM at the close of the reporting period.

PRIORITIZED RECOMMENDATIONS:

  • Significantly increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers, including Omani nationals, of forced labor crimes, specifically of migrant workers, including domestic servitude.
  • Increase use of specialized trafficking units within the Ministry of Labor (MOL), the Royal Oman Police (ROP), and the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) to investigate indicators of potential trafficking crimes, specifically those that originate as labor violations.
  • Impose dissuasive penalties on employers who withhold their employees’ passports.
  • Expand labor law protections to, and enforce legal protections for, domestic workers.
  • Operationalize the newly developed NRM and train officials on the procedures to proactively identify and refer to care both male and female trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, such as migrant workers (including domestic workers), persons in commercial sex, and those who flee abusive employers and situations of forced labor, and prevent the penalization of unidentified victims by utilizing formal screening protocols.
  • Ensure effective implementation of recent reforms to the sponsorship-based employment system by increasing awareness of reforms among migrant worker population and employers.
  • Disseminate to stakeholders the decision that allows potential victims the option to self-refer to protective services and amend the provision that stipulates they can only reside in the shelter long-term if they file charges against, or there is a corresponding prosecution of, an alleged trafficker.
  • Continue to expand trainings for officials involved in criminal investigations and for hotline operators to ensure accurate characterization of trafficking crimes.
  • Fully implement the national action plan (NAP) for 2021-2023.
  • Continue to conduct country-wide public awareness campaigns on all forms of trafficking, specifically targeted to vulnerable populations, including domestic workers.

PROSECUTION

The government increased law enforcement efforts overall, but it continued to take inadequate law enforcement actions on forced labor, specifically of migrant workers, including domestic servitude. Oman’s 2008 anti-trafficking law criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed punishments of three to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine for offenses involving adult victims and seven to 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine for offenses involving child victims. These punishments were sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In the previous reporting period, the government retained a foreign law firm to review Oman’s existing anti-trafficking law and submit recommendations for improvement to the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT). The government reported that it drafted new anti-trafficking legislation, focused on increasing penalties for traffickers and greater protections for victims, but that it had not yet been approved by the close of the reporting period.

The ROP and PPO continued to maintain specialized anti-trafficking units in their respective organizations. During the reporting period, the government established its first specialized court for trafficking cases; the government reported the court was staffed with judges with trafficking-specific expertise but could also handle other types of cases—including labor exploitation cases, if necessary. In 2021, the government investigated 55 alleged human trafficking cases, including 47 cases of sex trafficking and eight cases of forced begging, resulting in the arrest of 97 suspects. This was a large increase compared with the previous reporting period when the government investigated seven alleged sex trafficking cases. Authorities prosecuted 28 alleged suspects under the anti-trafficking law for sex trafficking and eight alleged suspects under the penal code for forced begging; the government has not reported any forced labor of migrant workers, including domestic servitude, prosecutions in the last three years. This was a large increase compared with the government’s prosecution of two suspects for sex trafficking in 2020. In 2021, courts convicted six sex traffickers under the anti-trafficking law and one trafficker for forced begging under the penal code; this was an increase compared with courts convicting two sex traffickers in the previous reporting period. Judges sentenced all six sex traffickers to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of 10,000 Omani rials (OMR) ($25,970), and confiscation of personal assets used to facilitate each crime. The government did not provide sentencing details for the trafficker convicted of forced begging. All of the convicted traffickers were foreign nationals, and the government planned to deport and impose reentry bans on them upon completion of their sentences. Twenty prosecutions remained pending verdicts at the close of the reporting period. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking crimes. The government reported the PPO initially considered labor cases involving foreign workers as trafficking cases until proven otherwise but did not prosecute and convict any perpetrators for forced labor of migrant workers or domestic servitude since 2018. Instances of migrant workers subjected to conditions indicative of forced labor remained common during the year—as reported by media, NGOs, and labor-source governments, suggesting that some trafficking cases were treated as administrative, immigration, or labor law violations without investigation, particularly in the case of domestic workers. For example, during the reporting period, media reported several Zimbabwean domestic workers were subjected to conditions of forced labor by their employers in Oman; Omani officials investigated these reports but found no evidence of trafficking.

During the year, the government participated in INTERPOL’s Operation Liberterra, which resulted in the apprehension of 286 suspects of human trafficking and migrant smuggling; the government provided information on at least 15 suspects during the operation. In addition, the PPO coordinated with the Government of Egypt for judicial assistance in obtaining the testimony of an unknown number of Egyptian nationals identified as trafficking victims in Oman but who were repatriated to Egypt before court proceedings commenced. The government conducted anti-trafficking training for graduating female ROP officers at the police training academy in May 2021, which focused on the legal framework for trafficking and related crimes, victim identification, and mechanisms for transferring potential cases to court; the government also returned to in-person training on trafficking topics for the ROP and other officials in November 2021. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) continued to fund an international trafficking expert to advise and assist interagency entities in conducting training on victim-centered investigations and enhancing information-gathering techniques, as well as devising legislative improvements. The government directly facilitated and funded five trainings for officials from the MFA, ROP, and MOL on topics including the anti-trafficking law and recognizing indicators of the crime. In partnership with the national worker’s union, the General Federation for Oman Workers (GFOW), the government conducted an anti-trafficking training related to trade unions’ responsibility to combat the crime. The government noted the number of participants in overall trainings remained low during the year due to pandemic-related travel restrictions and social distancing measures.

PROTECTION

The government made uneven efforts to protect victims; for the first time, it identified two boys as victims and referred them to care at the government shelter, but it identified fewer victims overall compared with the previous reporting period. In the previous reporting period, the government created and disseminated a formal screening questionnaire for officials to use in identifying potential trafficking victims among those arrested for commercial sex, labor violations, and fleeing their employer who was also their visa sponsor. ROP and PPO officials, shelter staff, heath workers, and the NCCHT used this questionnaire during the year to screen vulnerable populations for trafficking indicators; the government reported the screening questionnaire was used to screen 25 individuals, all of whom originally called into the government’s main trafficking hotline. Out of the 25 individuals screened, the government identified 16 as trafficking victims; a decrease from 29 female victims identified during the previous reporting period. Of the 16 identified victims, 13 were adult female sex trafficking victims, and three were children—one girl was a victim of sex trafficking, and two boys were victims of forced begging. The government did not identify any foreign victims of forced labor, including domestic servitude. All 16 victims were foreign nationals. No victims self-referred to the Ministry of Social Development (MOSD) shelter during the year, compared with three victims who self-referred in the previous reporting period. Previously, the MOSD shelter formally was available only for female victims; however, during the year, the government permanently expanded the shelter to provide access to male victims and subsequently allocated a separate area at the shelter for males. All 16 victims, including the two boys, received services at the government-operated shelter in Muscat during the year.

The government remained without formal referral procedures. In 2020, the government included the development and operationalization of an NRM in its most recent 2021-2023 NAP. The government completed its development of the NRM but did not launch it by the close of the reporting period. Officials continued to reactively refer some victims identified as part of ongoing police investigations to MOSD for shelter placement and medical and psychological services. Officials often referred self-identified victims to the police rather than directly to the MOSD for shelter placement. The government continued to allow potential victims to self-refer to the shelter following a policy change in 2020 that no longer required victims to file a case with the PPO for an official referral to shelter. Once a potential victim self-referred to the shelter, MOSD reported it alerted the PPO, which would formally begin an investigation to determine whether the individual was a trafficking victim. However, the government continued to stipulate that a victim had to have an active trafficking investigation in order to remain at the shelter long-term. Some source-country embassies in Oman reportedly offered victim services for their nationals but could not operate formal shelters without approval from the government, which it did not provide.

During the reporting period, the government allocated 1.79 million OMR ($4.65 million) for accommodation and victim care at its permanent shelter, which could lodge up to 50 female, male, and child victims of trafficking or other types of abuse. The shelter provided room and board, psychological counseling, legal support, monetary stipends, recreational opportunities, rehabilitation activities, resiliency training, and medical care to victims. In February 2022, MOSD signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a local NGO to assist vulnerable individuals residing at the government shelter, including trafficking victims; among other services, assistance included providing airline tickets home for victims when court proceedings ended and facilitating training workshops for victims to learn new skills. During the reporting period, the government put pandemic-related mitigation measures in place at the shelter, including the provision of personal protective equipment such as face masks. MOSD, in coordination with the Ministry of Health (MOH), administered COVID-19 vaccinations to all victims residing at the shelter, and upon repatriation, it ensured testing requirements were completed per the victim’s home country’s regulations. Shelter administrators interfaced with judicial officials to keep victims regularly informed of the status of their legal cases. Shelter policy dictated victims could depart the premises only with a chaperone and victims were not able to work during their stay at the shelter. The government offered complimentary repatriation services to victims who did not want to remain in-country or could facilitate new sponsorship for foreign workers if they chose to stay in Oman to work after departing the shelter. The government provided foreign victims with legal alternatives to removal to countries in which they may face retribution or hardship, to include alternate employment under another sponsor; during the reporting period, the government assisted two victims in obtaining new job opportunities following their stay at the shelter, as the two individuals chose to remain in Oman to work following the end of their court proceedings. Officials permitted and encouraged some victims to stay in Oman for the duration of court proceedings; the government reported all 16 victims cooperated in criminal cases. Officials at times reportedly encouraged other victims to reach extrajudicial settlements for the sake of expediency. The government did not allow victims participating in trials the opportunity to work or leave the shelter and, therefore, victims likely experienced prolonged unemployment; this, coupled with protracted court cases, disincentivized some victims from participating in trials. Sources reported some cases ended with aggrieved workers unable to switch employers, reaching administrative settlements with their former employers, and subsequently returning to their home countries. The NCCHT upheld the tenets of its MOU with a local association to provide Pro bono assistance to trafficking victims involved in court proceedings, to include seeking damages on behalf of victims and pursuing labor claims via MOL mediation.

The government reported it did not arrest any undocumented workers or those fleeing their employer during the year; however, other observers noted officials detained some workers for “absconding” who intended to file grievances against abusive employers and did not consistently screen for trafficking indicators among vulnerable populations. Some employers could compel foreign workers, whose legal status remained tied to their employers, to work for lower or no wages under the credible threat of deportation. Authorities also continued to treat some potential domestic servitude cases as labor violations and did not report identifying potential victims of domestic servitude. Because authorities did not universally employ the screening mechanism among vulnerable groups, such as undocumented migrant workers—including those who fled their employer—domestic workers, and individuals in commercial sex, some potential victims may have remained unidentified in the law enforcement system.

PREVENTION

The government maintained efforts to prevent trafficking. The NCCHT was composed of members from the MFA, PPO, ROP, Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs, MOH, Ministry of Education, MOSD, MOL, Ministry of Information, Council of Administrative Affairs for the Judiciary, Oman Human Rights Commission, Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the General Federation of Oman Workers. In the previous reporting period, the committee adopted a NAP to Combat Trafficking for 2021- 2023. In 2021, the committee actively worked to achieve the NAP’s goals, which included developing the NRM, among other activities. The NCCHT did not hold a formal meeting during the reporting year due to the pandemic but reported that several members met frequently to advance counter-trafficking policies, per the NAP.

In January 2021, the government’s decision to eliminate the NOC—that previously required employees to receive permission from their employers to seek new employment—entered into force. With the elimination of the NOC, the government allowed migrant workers, including domestic workers, to change employers upon completion or termination of their employment contract without employer approval. However, workers who fled allegedly abusive employers could not utilize the reform if their contract had not expired or been terminated. Additionally, the MOL General Directorate of Labor had to approve the contract with the new employer, at times delaying transfer. Anecdotal reporting suggested low awareness of this reform from migrant workers, as many workers attempted to change employers prior to the completion or termination of their employment contract; in those instances, employers could prohibit employees from leaving until their contract ended. Per Labor Law No. 35 of 2003, migrant workers could terminate a contract after providing a 30-day notice to their employer, and domestic workers could also terminate a contract with a 30-day notice period; however, domestic workers could also terminate their contract without notice in the case of abuse by the employer or a member of the employer’s family, per the 2004 decision regulating domestic workers. The government reported 82,211 workers were approved to transfer jobs in 2021 without employer permission. The government reported expatriate workers could depart the country without permission at any time, but a worker’s ability to do so was contingent on physically possessing a passport, having sufficient travel funds to return home, and not facing any charges, including “absconding” charges. An international organization noted that although the government allowed workers to terminate their employment and change employers without a previous employer’s permission, the sponsorship system would continue to persist as long as both the employee’s work and residence visas were tied to an employer. MOL circular No. 2/2006 prohibited employers from withholding migrant workers’ passports but did not specify penalties for noncompliance. MOL reported investigating 17 total passport retention complaints in 2020, compared with 82 cases the year prior; 15 complaints were resolved, and two remained under investigation by the ROP at the close of the reporting period, although the government did not report whether any of the cases were considered potential trafficking crimes.

A 2018 MOL ministerial decision stated a company must prove it has paid the past three months of an employee’s salary before filing a complaint to charge a migrant worker with “absconding.” Additionally, if a company filed more than five complaints in a month or more than 10 in a year, MOL would increase inspections to ensure the company complied with labor laws. If the company was not compliant, MOL would suspend its ability to operate, including the ability to receive services from MOL, for one year. The ministerial decision also created protections to prevent employers from firing employees while on leave or otherwise absent from work. During the reporting period, MOL increased inspections from 5,629 to more than 8,000 establishments to screen for trafficking indicators and build awareness against forced labor and exploitative practices among the migrant workforce. However, it did not report whether it referred any findings to the courts for administrative or criminal proceedings or referred any potential trafficking victims to care. The MOL also investigated 24,220 labor disputes, resolved 12,175, and referred 7,794 cases to authorities for adjudication; 4,251 cases remained pending at the close of the reporting period. In 2020, MOL established a dedicated counter-trafficking unit within its Inspection Department; during the reporting period, the unit conducted 880 workplace and recruitment agency inspections, and out of these inspections, officials referred four potential trafficking cases to the PPO for further investigation. Additionally, the unit received 274 complaints against recruitment agencies during the reporting year. Of the 274 complaints, it reached settlements in 85 cases and referred 116 to authorities for adjudication; 59 cases remained pending at the close of the reporting period, and 14 had an unknown status.

The labor law did not adequately include domestic workers, and the 2004 Ministerial Decision regulating their employment did not provide effective rights protections or adequate complaint mechanisms for this population. This decision established broad regulations related to monthly wages; adequate room, board, and medical care; return airfare when the employer terminates the contract; and airfare to and from the worker’s home country during approved vacation days. However, the decision did not provide standards on working hours, weekly rest days, annual vacation, overtime compensation, and penalties for employers who breach provisions. The government’s 2011 standard employment contract for domestic workers included provisions from the 2004 decision, and required one weekly rest day, 30 days of leave, and return flights every two years, but it had no limit on working hours or provisions for overtime pay. Some domestic workers experienced non-payment of wages, excessive work hours, passport confiscation, and physical and sexual abuse during the reporting period. In 2021, the government reported it drafted a new labor law, which reportedly included additional protections for domestic workers and victims of trafficking; the new law remained under review at the close of the reporting period.

The ROP maintained the government’s central trafficking hotline and displayed its phone number on social media posts, news articles pertaining to trafficking, and the NCCHT website. The NCCHT also was able to receive notifications through its website, which provided communications in 14 languages. Separately, MOL operated a labor violation hotline, which it promoted in its video on workers’ rights and responsibilities, and the MOSD operated an all-purpose helpline that also assisted potential victims in accessing the government shelter. All hotlines reportedly remained active year-round, 24 hours per day, and staffed with Arabic and English interpreters; Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali- speaking contractors were available. For the first time, officials reported the number of hotline calls received; ROP’s hotline received 62 calls, MOL’s hotline and website received approximately 1,200 inquiries, and the NCCHT website received 32 notifications during the reporting year. At the end of the last reporting period, the government initiated a three- month national trafficking awareness campaign entitled Insan (human being), that ended in May 2021. The campaign, which specifically targeted workers, victims, and offenders, educated the general community on trafficking, outlined protective services, and provided information about prevention. During the three-month campaign, the NCCHT reported advertising and media activities featured artwork to convey trafficking indicators, such as passport confiscation. Online, print, and broadcast media advertisements also featured media personalities, Omani officials, and sports stars to call attention to trafficking indicators. In addition, the NCCHT coordinated with telecommunications companies to send awareness materials through SMS messages to the public and launched a new social media account to raise awareness, available in both Arabic and English. The government reported having bilateral labor MOUs regarding migrant workers with Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Vietnam; some included articles prohibiting unlawful labor recruitment and trafficking. Oman was signatory to a Gulf Cooperation Council- wide labor agreement with the Philippines. Representatives of labor- source country embassies that had labor-related agreements with the government reported they experienced good cooperation with MOL and ROP on labor issues involving their respective nationals. In November 2021, the NCCHT held a meeting with the ROP and representatives of major labor-source country embassies, including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Thailand, to discuss human trafficking trends in the country and explore potential bilateral agreements. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The government provided anti- trafficking training to diplomatic personnel.

TRAFFICKING PROFILE

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit foreign victims in Oman. Oman’s migrant worker community comes primarily from South East and South Asia and, more recently, from African countries, including Ghana, Lesotho, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. For example, in March 2022, media reported several Zimbabwean domestic workers had been subjected to conditions of forced labor in Oman; the workers were lured through fraudulent recruiters and, upon arriving to Oman, experienced longer than agreed upon working hours, passport confiscation, and non-payment of wages. In 2020, the government implemented pandemic-related travel restrictions that limited migrant workers’ ability to enter and exit the country; between March and October 2020, the government closed airports and land borders, limiting workers’ capacity to travel to Oman while stranding others within the country who may have experienced increased risk of exploitation due to pandemic-related job loss or non-payment of wages. Observers noted that due to “Omanization,” a series of labor-related policies designed to prioritize Omanis for employment over expatriates, and continued pandemic-related economic downturn, the number of migrant workers in Oman declined in 2020 and further declined in 2021, effectively reducing the number of third- country residents in Oman and possibly increasing their vulnerability to exploitation given demand for labor. Foreign workers typically migrate to Oman willingly and legally. Men generally seek employment in construction, agricultural, and service sectors, while women often seek domestic worker jobs. Male migrant workers are typically from South Asia and are vulnerable to forced labor. Traffickers exploit female victims, predominantly from Africa and South, Southeast, and East Asia, in forced labor and sex trafficking. Domestic workers who flee their employers are also vulnerable to sex trafficking. Some employers reportedly “kick out” their domestic employees, who are consequently forced into commercial sex. Additionally, terminated migrant workers who are unable to depart the country are at risk of exploitation, while others who contract COVID-19 and require quarantine experience wage reduction because they cannot work.

Migrant workers seeking low-wage jobs continue to be at risk for trafficking under the visa-sponsorship employment system in Oman, which grants recruitment agencies and/or Omani visa sponsors significant control over workers’ residency and work visas and, therefore, their legal status in the country. Although the government instituted initial reforms of the sponsorship system during the previous reporting period, this system continues to give employers the power to dictate the status of residency permits. Some unscrupulous recruitment agencies in Oman and their sub-agents in labor-source countries mislead migrant workers by providing fraudulent contracts with fictitious wages and charging exorbitant recruitment fees. Some victims face working conditions significantly worse than recruiting agencies promised. Traffickers subject some of these workers to employment practices that constitute forced labor, to include excessive work hours, passport confiscation, non-payment of wages, food deprivation, and psychological and sexual abuse. Conversely, other workers enter Oman with full knowledge of their work obligations, but sponsors ultimately coerce them to work for little or no pay or in dire conditions under the credible threat of deportation. In previous reporting periods, some workers arrived in Oman on tourist visas or by first traveling to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) while willing employers secured their Omani work visas, thereby circumventing oversight of some workers’ home governments. Additionally, some victims originally intended to travel to the UAE but were subsequently compelled to accept work in Oman, or vice-versa. Traffickers often began recruitment in labor-source countries with some promising retail jobs in well-known areas, such as Dubai. After arriving in the UAE, traffickers transport migrant workers into Oman and force them to work for lower wages and in austere conditions in the absence of legal contracts. Informal labor intermediaries operate legally but without regulation in Oman, communicating anonymously via social media platforms to promise Omani sponsors inexpensive domestic labor at a fraction of the cost stipulated by the formal, well-established recruitment agencies.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future