Gulf region's newest pipeline: human trafficking

The US named four Gulf allies as among the worst at combating human trafficking.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

When Judy left her home on the southern coast of the Philippines this spring, it was her first trip abroad and her first time on an airplane. She was excited, nervous, and sad all at once.

Like many young Filipina women before her, awaiting her in Kuwait was the promise of a good job and enough money to support her family and save for school. She was to become a nanny and tutor to a young boy.

But on her first day working for the Kuwaiti family for whom she had been hired by a recruiting office in Mindanao, Philippines, her excitement quickly turned to fear.

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Her new 'Mama' - what Asian maids in the Gulf call their female sponsors - told her, " 'I don't like you, you are ugly,' " says Judy, who didn't give her last name, in an interview at the Philippine labor attache's office in Kuwait. "I didn't understand what was going on. I just wanted to cry."

Work began at 5 a.m. and ended at midnight. "I washed clothes, cleaned the floors, scrubbed toilets and sinks and bathrooms. And just kept doing that over and over again," she says. "All this and no food, no rest."

One day she waited until her sponsor was out, then packed a bag, and escaped to the Philippine Embassy joining hundreds of other Filipina women who have run away from their Kuwaiti employers to seek sanctuary at the Overseas' Workers' Administration at the embassy.

Unable to leave until her sponsor pays her back wages because she cannot afford to buy a plane ticket home, Judy and the other women spend their days sitting in the embassy, unable to get another job and unable to go home.

Thousands of men, women, and children, most of them from Asia, will be trafficked to the Gulf this year to live as what the US State Department calls "modern day slaves." Most won't know until they get here what lies in store for them and hundreds will, like Judy, flee their employers, suffer physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, and go home empty-handed.

The trafficking trap

In June the US State Department listed Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) among 14 countries that do little or nothing to stop human trafficking. Washington lowered all four to its Tier 3 category, which could eventually lead to economic sanctions if these countries do not act to stem the flow of trafficking across their borders.

The State Department says that 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children worldwide are victims of trafficking - the recruitment, transportation, or harboring of people by means of threat, force, coercion, fraud, or deception for the purpose of exploitation and forced labor.

There are no raw numbers on how many of these trafficked persons - who can end up being maids, factory workers, camel jockeys, or prostitutes - come to the Middle East. But the Gulf boasts one of the highest populations of expatriate labor forces in the world, with more than 10 million. In Kuwait, there is an average of one maid for every two Kuwaitis and in the UAE, 1.6 million people, or 80 percent of the total population, are expatriate workers.

Washington accuses the Arab Gulf states of failing to "comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and not making significant efforts to do so." The US lambastes Kuwait and its neighbors for failing to "take significant steps to address trafficking, particularly efforts to prosecute trafficking crimes and protect victims."

The thousands of Bangladeshi, Filipino, Indonesian, Sri Lankan, and other Asian women and men who seek sanctuary at their embassies across the region each week see little improvement in their conditions.

Earlier this year a Kuwaiti sponsor brought more than 1,000 Pakistani laborers under false pretenses. According to the Pakistani Embassy in Kuwait, the men paid the recruiter several thousand rupees only to arrive in Kuwait and find no job, no place to live, no work or residence visas, and no chance of earning back the money they spent to get here.

Recruiting scams are all too common. Trafficking victims say nationals from their home countries, as well as embassy officials and local citizens, often conspire to "recruit" hundreds of laborers, in exchange for a fee. Too often, such recruits find themselves homeless, jobless, and seeking sanctuary in their embassies or being arrested and deported.

'Modern day slaves'

Marie, another young Filipina interviewed for this story, can barely hold back the tears as she tells her story. "I dreamed I wanted to go abroad to support my family ... and when I came to Kuwait I thought my dream came true but when I reached my employer they were at first nice but then they kicked me and hit me," she says.

Like Judy, Marie eventually ran away. "I had a chance to escape and I went to the police station and an officer took me to the hospital." With the help of Philippine counselors, she filed a case against her sponsor for mistreatment and a court awarded her 500 Kuwait dinars ($1,712). But she has yet to receive the money.

In neighboring Saudi Arabia, a nongovernmental human rights watchdog, the National Human Rights Association, says that it has received about 2,000 complaints of abuse since it was established last year.

The State Department, in its annual trafficking report, says, "Saudi Arabia is a destination for men and women from South and East Asia and East Africa trafficked for the purpose of labor exploitation, and for children from Yemen, Afghanistan, and Africa trafficking for forced begging."

A spokesman for the Saudi Foreign Minister denounced the US report. "We are surprised by the contents of the report, and we disagree with most of what has been mentioned," Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Kabeer told Reuters. "The rules and regulations of Saudi Arabia prohibit exploitation and trafficking of people. Our religion also does not accept this," he said.

The fight against trafficking

In the trafficking report, the US outlines specifically what measures it expects countries identified as the worst offenders to undertake in order to improve the situation. Speaking via videoconferencing at the US Embassy in Kuwait on June 22, James Miller, senior adviser to the secretary of State and director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, called on the government to combat its problems with "modern day slavery" by raising public awareness, improving labor laws to protect victims, and prosecuting offenders.

As most locals will acknowledge, the lifestyle of Gulfies (nationals from any of the Arab Gulf states) is built on a foundation of foreign labor. Most citizens' households - including high-ranking government officials, human rights advocates, as well as labor activists - have at least one and often several servants including a driver, cook, and maid.

Some young women who are brought here to be trapped into domestic servitude and often abused see no way out of their situation other than suicide. Instances of young Asian maids killing themselves by hanging or jumping off high buildings are a regular occurrence.

But for those able to escape, like 18-year-old Sittie Leng, there is hope they'll eventually return home.

Ms. Leng flips her long hair across her shoulders. "Household chores are not meant for me," she says.

After signing a contract in Mindanao and arriving in Kuwait, she switched employers three times in four months. In the last house, she was made a babysitter and that suited her better. But after one month, she grew worried when she saw her employers beating the three maids.

"Shouting, hitting, beating, kicking, using the wood to hit. I was scared that maybe they would hit me next. The maids had black marks all over their bodies. Our employer is like a devil and that house is like a hell - a hell house."

The four of them eventually fled together. Now Leng thinks only of going home. "I want to study nursing," she says.

When asked what she'll tell other Filipinas who think of coming to the Gulf to work, she laughs and shakes her head: "Beware," she says.

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