The Shocking Truth about Human Traffic
It’s a steamy July morning as I make my way towards the security gates of the Ewa’a Shelter for Women and Children in Abu Dhabi – a shelter that specialises in rehabilitation for those who have been trafficked illegally.
Madawi, the media coordinator for Ewa’a, greets me on the steps. I tell her I’m looking forward to meeting the women living here but I’m unsure about what I can ask them. Madawi explains that, while most don’t speak much English, they will try to get their story across as they know Ewa’a needs to spread the shelter’s message. And the message is? “That there is help available for those who need it,” she replies.
And help is definitely needed. In the UAE last year 58 human trafficking cases were registered, involving 152 victims, compared to 43 cases and 86 victims in 2009, according to The National. Worldwide, the figures are almost too huge to comprehend, with women making up 80 per cent of the almost two and a half million people who are currently being trafficked – most of them victims of sexual exploitation. It’s a 118 billion dirham global business, and is the fastest-growing and second-largest criminal activity in the world, tied with arms and after drug dealing.
Die of hunger
I’m greeted in the kitchen by a smiling woman, Saima*, who is making breakfast. In her early 20s, Saima has been with Ewa’a the longest. Most women move on after three months but Saima’s case is proving difficult to settle. “I came to the UAE as I was promised work in a beauty salon,” she tells me. “I worked as a hairdresser back home but I moved here because I needed to provide for my family. I was met at the airport by a strange man, but the female owner of the salon had said a man would pick me up so I didn’t question it. My passport was taken from me and, when we arrived at an apartment, the man told me to rest as I’d be starting work the next day. When I found out he meant prostitution I screamed at him but he hit me and said I’d either do as he said or die of hunger. I was forced to stay there as a prostitute for months, before police raided the apartment and I was saved.”
Saima tells me that, although she was sad to leave her family behind, she was excited about visiting a different country. It strikes me that Saima is just like the rest of us – all coming to the Middle East in search of a better way of life, but, while it is often seen as the land of opportunity, some women like Saima never have the chance to visit the malls or feel the spray from the surf at the beach. Rather, they go straight to the underbelly of the UAE, and are locked away in a room with their passports confiscated and the door opening only for prospective clients.
While it is easy for us to question why women like Saima trusted people they’d probably never met, human traffickers target those who are already vulnerable. They promise good jobs and satisfactory wages and tend to be of the same nationality as the victims. But what really convinces these women – and makes cracking human trafficking rings so hard – is that many traffickers are women. “Most would have been trafficked themselves when they were younger, so it’s vicious circle,” says Madawi. “We don’t suspect women to be capable of doing something like this, so we trust them more easily. But the traffickers will have this as a side job to the life they normally lead, which makes it even harder to spot one.”
While forced labour remains one of the UAE’s biggest trafficking problems, the exploitation of female migrant workers by the sex trade is a serious issue. However, the positive news is that the UAE is taking a hard stance towards human trafficking. The National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking was set up in 2006 and its chairman, Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, is keen to stress how seriously the UAE views such a crime. “Despite the challenges posed by it, the UAE has been proactive in the global fight to combat human trafficking. The issue is increasingly being addressed publicly by both the government and media and is a top priority for the UAE government,” he says.
The Ewa’a shelter was set up in 2008 and is just one of the measures being taken to acknowledge and help to fight against such crimes. A home for up to 20 women, aged mostly between five and 35, the shelter is a non-profit, non-government entity functioning under the umbrella of the UAE Red Crescent, part of the world’s largest humanitarian network, the Red Cross. The victims are all from outside the UAE and, according to Madawi, “can be from anywhere – Europe, Pakistan, India, everywhere.” So far Ewa’a has helped countless women and two more shelters opened earlier this year, in Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah respectively.
What is being done?
According to a report from the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, more cases than ever are going to court in the UAE, which it attributes to a more concentrated effort from authorities to “counter this criminal practice”.
Dubai recorded the highest number of cases in 2010, with 28 – up from 21 the year before; seven cases went to court in Abu Dhabi and another 23 cases were recorded in the remaining five emirates. The report said that, along with the creation of a department dedicated to the cause within the Ministry of Labour, the opening of shelters for women and children is one of the biggest things to have helped in stopping trafficking. The existence of the shelters acknowledges the existence of the crime itself – and thus the will to address the issue.But perhaps the biggest factor is that more women are coming forward. With a safe place to run to, more victims are making their escapes – and helping to lead the police to their traffickers.
“Many women would’ve been told by their captors that if they tried to escape, they would end up in jail, but the police today are keen to stress that, once they determine that a woman is a victim of human trafficking, they will bring her to a shelter immediately,” says Madawi. “We work very closely with the police – but also with embassies and churches as a lot of women will feel safer going to one of these instead.”
As I take a tour around the shelter, it’s clear that making the women and children feel safe is a priority. The kitchen is like any other homely kitchen; the living room is the centre of all the activities and the garden is verdant, with a welcoming swimming pool at the end. In the bedrooms there are bunk beds. “Is that because of lack of space?” I ask Madawi. “Not really,” she replies. “If a woman wants a room to herself she can have one, but most don’t like to sleep on their own.”
Once at the shelter, the woman or child will receive food, clothing and medical attention immediately. “We’ll then concentrate on giving her the skills she needs to start her life over, such as English lessons and weekly counselling,” says Madawi. Once the woman’s case has been resolved (if they have found her captors), Ewa’a will sort out her visas and pay for flight back home (a process that usually takes 3–6 months).
My tour ends with a visit to the shelter’s hotline room. It is manned 24 hours, seven days a week and if a victim calls, the workers can direct her to one of the shelters or send the police to investigate. It is a small, quiet room that belies how vitally important it is.
On my way home, I can’t help thinking about what more can be done to help the women I’d met today. They’d all seemed so normal – so much like you and me. Yet despite the pain they’d been through, it was uplifting to see that they were making the most of their time at Ewa’a to learn and to improve their situation. The stories I’d heard were tragic in their predictability: “I left my husband back home to come here for a job as a maid but there was no job”; “My mother is very sick and I came here so I could provide for my family”.
I remember the determined glint Saima had in her eye and I hope she gets to go home to her family soon. While human trafficking is a global problem, we can all do our bit in the fight against it. The UAE government donates an annual budget to the shelters, but Ewa’a will always need donations of cash, clothes or gifts as all of its services are free to the victims. In the meantime, perhaps the best way you can help is by raising awareness. Start spreading the word today.
Tricked into the trade: one woman's story
“I spent two months in Abu Dhabi’s Ewa’a Shelter undergoing psychological rehabilitation and getting legal assistance. I’m an Asian woman, from a very poor family, and I’m the sole provider as my father is an old man. Back home I sold clothes and my income was very low so, when I met a woman who said she was a family friend and told me I could work in the UAE, I jumped at the chance.
The woman explained that I could work as a servant for her sister in Abu Dhabi and prepared all of the necessary documents.
At Dubai Airport the woman’s sister was waiting for me. She took me to her apartment, where there was a man but they didn’t explain who he was. The sister said that I’d work as a servant but, after a few days, I noticed that many females came to the apartment and I began to have doubts. One day, when the sister was out I spoke to one of them. When I said I was working as a servant she laughed and said, ‘That’s what they told us at the beginning, but they made us work in prostitution.’
I was shocked and afraid. The girl said I should leave if I could so a few days afterwards I got a chance and escaped, asking a taxi driver to drop me at a police station.
The police asked questions about what I’d experienced and about the network, then moved me to the shelter. I was afraid that the sister would come for me, but the people at the centre made me feel safe. There, I met women who’d gone through similar experiences – often, they hadn’t been so lucky – and with support from them and the volunteers at Ewa’a, I’m getting back on track. I hope to go home soon and start using the skills I’ve learned here.”
INFO: To find out more about Ewa’a or to make a donation visit shwc.ae or call (02) 558 4812. Ewa’a’s hotline number is 800SAVE (800 7283).