Gulf region's newest pipeline: human trafficking
The US named four Gulf allies as among the worst at combating human trafficking.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.