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Spotlight on Africa

Ugandan survivor speaks out against human trafficking

Audio 10:00
A human trafficking victim talks to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2016, the UN says over 2,500 victims in the Middle East came from Sub-Saharan Africa, most of them women.
A human trafficking victim talks to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2016, the UN says over 2,500 victims in the Middle East came from Sub-Saharan Africa, most of them women. Photo courtesy of UNODC

With mounting reports of abuse against its citizens, Ugandan authorities in March issued a warning to job hunters to avoid some countries in the Middle East. RFI's Christina Okello spoke to one victim, *Maria, who agreed to share her story.


*Maria was 23 when a recruitment agent approached her with the promise of a lucrative 500 dollar salary per month and benefits.

"It was easy because the person who got me the job had people he was working with. So you don't really know what's going on. All you get is your visa and your ticket. And then you pay some money and then you go to the airport. There's always someone waiting for you."

Some Ugandan girls are required to pay agents up to 250 euros, sometimes even more, for a ticket to a better life abroad, not realizing the conditions are closer to modern day slavery than decent employment.

"It's not what attracted me to Oman, it was the job... I needed to work," says Maria.

Stories of unemployed girls being lured to countries in the Middle East, with promises of lucrative pay, have come under scrutiny since Uganda's Daily Monitor published a damning investigation in January.

In it, the paper revealed how traffickers smuggle Ugandan girls through Kenya before shipping them off to destinations in the Middle East.

"These traffickers will take them to Kenya, and then from there they'll take them up," explains Sarah Miles in Kampala, who serves with Rahab Uganda that assists victims of exploitation.

"The government thinks they're going across the border to Kenya to visit. There are so many ways that these traffickers are ahead of us."

Witnessing human trafficking

Mary Otuko saw first hand what trafficking looks like on her way back from Uganda to the UK.

The humanitarian worker was at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta Airport when she "witnessed something I can't shake off," she wrote in a Facebook message that quickly prompted a flurry of response.

"I noticed a large group of young African women most of whom were dressed in Muslim-like headscarves. I later found out that they were all from Ghana. I am not sure why but I had this feeling that something was odd about them. They all looked downcast and were not talking to each other."

Mary later learned that the girls -- who "looked less than 20" -- had been recruited by an agent after their mother "encouraged" them to go to Saudi Arabia and earn money to support the family. Just like their neighbour's daughters had done.

In most cases, poverty and lack of opportunity is the driving force that pushes girls like Maria out of their homes.

Yet the reality they find on the ground seldom lives up to their expectations.

Working from 4am to 11pm

"You wake up at 4am, you make breakfast... you take it to everyone's house, after that, you clean the house, you help the kids with getting ready for school, you get like 15 minutes to eat, then back to the kitchen," recalls Maria, who says after two months her pay stopped coming.

"You're working from 4am up to 11pm, you have a lot to do, you have to iron their clothes...and then you have to rest one hour. And then when you wake up you have to clean again, it doesn't matter if it's already clean, they just don't care."

Middle East consultants who offer lucrative jobs to Ugandans promise they can go home when they want. Maria says in reality, the process is far more difficult. 

"I called the person who got me there in the first place, I called the agent in Kampala, and I'm like 'what did you get me into? There is nothing sensible I'm doing here. I'm just tired, I need to go'," she said after the first month.

"And he's like 'Don't worry, we're going to set you up with something better, just hold on'. And I'm like 'No no no, I'm not going to do anything'. I almost went crazy. I stopped working (...) I just locked myself up in the room, I didn't go out. I call him and I tell him I just want to go home." 

"You signed a contract"

Maria's passport was confiscated almost as soon as she arrived, making any attempt at escape difficult.

"If you run you're going to end up on the streets, and if you end up on the streets you're going to be a prostitute because you cannot get a job."

Maria recounts how she was completely at the mercy of her employer, through a long-standing system known as Kafala, which essentially binds a migrant worker's legal status to that of their employer. Human rights groups have long condemned this system.

"Not even the police is going to help you. Even if you run, they'll hold you and then they'll take you back to the house. Because they're like 'That's your boss, you're supposed to work. You signed a contract'."

An activist eventually reached out to the organization Rahab to get Maria out.

"It was by the grace of God that she got out of there," says Sarah Miles, one of Rahab's missionaries.

Getting back

"How I got back, it's really disturbing," explains Maria. "I had to do what I had to do, besides paying money. And then the guy was on my case. He was like ok, if you want me to get you a passport -- because he had my passport then -- I, had to sleep with him or something, whatever...yeah. And not only that, I had to pay him for my ticket with the little money I had, and then I came back home."

That was in July last year, after eight months of hell.

"I ended up going to the airport not knowing if she would even be allowed on the plane in Oman," recalls Sarah. "We have so many girls contacting us from that country. They're stuck there until that visa expires," usually after two years.

Often though girls like Maria end up being transferred to other families. And each time they do, their contract starts all over again from scratch.

"The money's not there to get them out," continues Sarah. "The government of Oman doesn't want to pay for it. And the government in Uganda doesn't have the money. And the families in Uganda don't have the money, they were expecting the person in Oman to make the money."

Not a pot of gold

Estimated monthly remittances from migrant workers in the Middle East bring in over 5 million euros every month, according to Ugandan authorities.

This was the argument used by Kampala in March to lift its ban on the export of domestic workers abroad. But the Labour ministry insists it will only deal with Gulf countries which have bilateral agreements with Uganda on migrant labour.

But many Ugandans are still flocking to the Gulf.

Maria warns them to think again.

"It might be hard... and you're desperate. But you don't have to trust anyone, it could be a cousin or a friend pimping you out, don't just go because someone has given you money. Not all that glitters is gold." 


*Maria's name has been changed to protect her identity

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