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US 'suppressed critical report on people-smuggling in Oman'

Diplomatic sources say US State Department refused to downgrade Oman in internal report on human trafficking
US Secretary of State John Kerry pictured with Yussef bin Alawi, Oman's foreign minister, in Riyadh (AFP)

The US State Department suppressed an internal report into Oman’s worsening record on human trafficking, according to reports.

US officials told the Reuters news agency that senior advisers to Secretary of State John Kerry deliberately ignored warnings about the country and prevented a downgrade in this year's Trafficking in Persons report, or TIP.

Officials in the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau had originally agreed to downgrade Oman’s rating in April from “Tier 2” to a status known as “Tier 2 Watch List”, which is one grade above the level that can provoke US sanctions.

However, according to sources speaking to Reuters, the US put the entire 382-page report on hold in June, citing Oman as the only hold-up.

When the report was finally published in late July, Oman maintained its original Tier 2 rating.

The Middle East and North Africa

Mark Lagon, the TIP office’s ambassador-at-large from 2007 to 2009 and now president of Freedom House, told Reuters that he was “not aware of a case where something like this has happened before”.

A Western diplomatic source told Reuters he thought Kerry was "protecting Oman” when it came to human trafficking.

"John Kerry has a good personal relationship with (Oman Foreign Minister) Yusuf bin Alawi and a good feeling towards Oman. So he doesn't want to see Oman downgraded.”

A State Department official told Reuters that the department would “stand by the integrity of the process”.

Oman is regarded as a crucial mediator in the Middle East, often acting as liaison between the US and Gulf countries and Iran.

The nuclear deal struck between the P5+1 countries and Iran in July was achieved in large part due to secret talks between the US and Iran which first took place in Oman in 2012.

However, the country’s highly centralised system - in which overall power is wielded by Sultan Qaboos - has frequently come in for criticism over its treatment of migrant workers and failure to address concerns over human trafficking.

The State Department’s final TIP report criticises the country, despite maintaining the Tier 2 rating.

“Oman is a destination and transit country for men and women, primarily from South Asia and East Africa, subjected to forced labour and, to a lesser extent, sex trafficking,” it read.

“Most migrants travel willingly and legally to Oman with the expectation of employment in domestic service or as workers in the country's construction, agriculture, and service sectors; some are subsequently subjected to forced labour.

"Labour source-country officials report domestic workers seeking assistance experience excessive working hours, passport confiscation, and physical and mental abuse.”

Ahmed al-Mukhaini, an analyst and former assistant secretary general for Oman’s Shura council, or consultative national assembly, told Reuters that clamping down on trafficking remained a low priority for the Omani government.

“We don’t have sufficient capacity where people can seek recourse to assistance,” he said.