Modern slavery of domestic workers in Middle East cannot be tolerated
The EU must take a stand against trafficking young girls from Africa to be sold as domestic workers in the Middle East, writes Madi Sharma.
I recently visited Cameroon as part of a European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) delegation. We discussed issues on strengthening the role of civil society in the country and how the EU could contribute to improving the lives of the local population.
As president of the EESC's human rights committee, my main goal was to speak with local women, understanding the challenges they face and passing on my insights to EU policymakers.
I was astounded to find out that one of the main issues they face is the trafficking of young girls and women from Cameroon to Middle Eastern countries such as Kuwait, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, where they are treated like slaves.
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NGO workers and women who knew the victims shared personal stories with me, and they were shocking. One girl reported being sexually abused by her 'master' on several occasions. When she told his wife what was happening, she and her husband threatened to kill her.
Another girl had all her belongs confiscated, including her passport and educational certificates. After a long struggle, she finally made it home with only the clothes she wore.
The trafficking ring is well established and local recruiters in Cameroon are paid huge sums of money to identify the victims. The girls are usually promised decent jobs, only to find out they have actually been sold as domestic slaves when they arrive in Kuwait.
As soon as they arrive, they become the property of local sponsors. One victim described how she was referred to as a slave throughout her time in Kuwait.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, in 2009 the embassies of countries such as Cameroon and Sierra Leone in Kuwait received over 10,000 complaints from domestic workers.
Grievances included "nonpayment of wages; withholding of passports; excessively long working hours without rest; and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse".
Many women who are returned to recruiters by their 'employers' are then locked up for days without food by their agents, until new employment is found.
According to a Guardian report, the business of domestic workers in Kuwait is booming, with nearly 90 per cent of households employing at least one foreign maid.
These are women who have paid around €1600 to 'employment' agents in their countries around on the promise of a job in a hospital or in the hotel industry. Instead, they are forced to work as housemaids 24 hours a day without any rest days, and are not allowed to leave the house or use mobile phones.
We cannot allow this situation to continue. In today's world, modern slavery is intolerable in any form, and we must fight to save these women from such abuse.
The EU needs to ensure that both the source countries in Africa and the destination countries in the Middle East establish rules to safeguard these women's dignity and dreams of a better future for themselves and their families.
Those countries who do not have an adequate protection system should be brought to justice, while authorities and local civil society organisations should ensure victims' safety.