Emirati princesses trafficking conviction sends "strong signal" but impunity prevails: experts

"No one, even if you are a princess, is above the law"

LONDON, June 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The conviction of eight Emirati princesses in Belgium on human trafficking charges for mistreating their maids has sent a warning to abusive employers, but such cases are often hidden and hard to prosecute, trafficking experts said on Friday.

Nearly 46 million people around the world are living as slaves, forced to work in factories, mines and farms, sold for sex or trapped in domestic servitude, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation.

Yet fewer than 15,000 trafficking cases were prosecuted globally in 2016, leading to 9,000 convictions, according to the U.S. 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

Cases involving domestic migrant workers are especially difficult to bring to court, highlighted by the princesses' conviction, which took almost a decade to come about, experts said.

"Domestic servitude is often one individual in a private house which is very hard to evidence because it is by nature so hidden," said Kate Roberts, head of office at the Human Trafficking Foundation.

"The abuse has been so normalised. Victims are so traumatised it's almost hard to believe," she added.

Some victims may not recall dates and names - or might never have been told the address they were working at - which can be hard for authorities to believe, Roberts said.

Last week, eight Emirati princesses were convicted of human trafficking by a Belgian court and given suspended jail terms and fines in a case stemming from their treatment of servants at a Brussels luxury hotel nearly 10 years ago.

The Brussels criminal court handed the eight women from Abu Dhabi's ruling al-Nahyan family 15-month suspended sentences for human trafficking and degrading treatment.

"It gives a strong signal that no one, even if you are a princess, is above the law," Patricia Le Cocq, a human trafficking expert at migration group Myria, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It is striking that the court took into account all the victims' declarations and considers them as credible," she added.

Over 20 maids were brought to the Brussels hotel that princesses were staying at and many had to be available around the clock, seven days a week and were often sleeping on the floor in the princesses' bedrooms, court documents showed.

Most of the victims were from the Philippines, Morocco and Tunisia. The case was brought after one of them slipped out of the hotel where the women stayed for several months in 2007 and 2008 and complained to Belgian police.

(Reporting by Anna Pujol-Mazzini @annapmzn, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)