Trafficked Bhutanese women rescued from Iraq share how authorities helped them

Tashi Dema

August 5, 2020.  Kezang, like most days, left for the grocery shop not far from her employer’s house in Bagdad, the capital city of Iraq. Kezang was not out for shopping that day. She was on her way to “freedom.”

Few metres away from her employer’s house, she hailed a taxi and hurriedly said, Zayouna mall. Inside the taxi, she was shivering and started praying. “It was a now or never moment,” she said. “I was lucky that the taxi driver spoke English and dropped me at the right time.”

At Zayouna mall, an Iraqi woman, who was working for a non-governmental organisation and helping Bhutanese authorities in Thimphu and Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Kuwait waited for her.

After a 10-month life of mistreatment, torture and inhuman treatment including getting beaten up, Kezang, who was sold to almost five employers, escaped from Iraq.

All Kezang could bring along was a second-hand mobile phone she bought from the Bangladeshi gardener of her employer. She needed the phone to chat with ‘dashos’ for her rescue on social media.    The gardener gave her a SIM card too. “I didn’t even have clothes to change,” she said.

Karma (name changed), 31, negotiated her way out of Iraq.

She reached Iraq last October through an unauthorised agent, who promised her a job in a beauty parlour. Karma was forced to work as a housemaid and was mistreated. She changed several employees and after knowing the working conditions and poor wages, started complaining to everyone she met online.

The class six dropout from Punakha finally got in touch with officials from the foreign ministry, Bhutanese Embassy in Kuwait, army and police. “They gave me contact details of relevant officials and asked me to ask how much my employer would charge to send me home,” she said.

Her employer demanded USD 9,000. She cooked up stories of desperation back home and managed to negotiate to buy her freedom for USD 7,500.

“The local woman working for our authorities came to rescue me and the government paid the amount for me through her,” she said. “I went down with dreams of making money but came back as a burden to the government,” the mother of two said.

In another rescue operation, Tshering (name changed), 31, nearly jeopardized the operation.

The advice was to wait near a dustbin near her house at 6am. A taxi was supposed to pick her up. She missed the taxi and returned to her employer after walking in the rain for an hour. “I lied to the employer that I went to dispose off my sanitary napkins.”

On the second attempt, a local man, who was helping Bhutanese authorities locate the women and rescue them, came to rescue her. They locked her in a room and cut off her Wi-Fi. “The local man came with police to rescue me,” she said.

She reached Bhutan on September 4 with 132 Bhutanese women in Iraq.

The mother of one from Zhemgang said she met the agent in Bagdogra, India when she was on her way to Qatar. After she encountered some problems in Qatar, the agent helped her with her tickets to come to Delhi and then sent her to Iraq, claiming her business was legal and licensed.

“I went there to clear the loan I took in my mother’s name,” she said. She was paid her salary of USD 350 a month but sent that money home. “I still have about Nu 100,000 to pay.”


About Nu 140M spent to rescue 159 women

The government has spent about Nu 140M to rescue 159 Bhutanese women, who went through illegal agents to work in various regions of Iraq. The government paid between USD 3,400 and USD 7,000 for each woman rescued through negotiation.

In a rescue operation that took more than 10 months, the women were brought back to the country in various groups, ranging from three to 132 at a time. Three women are, however, with the International Organisation of Migration back in Iraq, following the international procedures.

The women were rescued after His Majesty commanded to use every effort and resource to bring them home safely after which a joint task force was formed. The women were rescued using diplomatic processes and negotiations. Local authorities in Iraq, the IOM, and embassies of foreign countries, NGOs, and individuals helped to rescue the women.

Once back home, the women were given medical attention and counselling at the facility quarantine.

“If not for His Majesty the King, the government and all the officials, both in Bhutan and in Kuwait, who worked a lot for us, I would still be suffering in Baghdad,” Wangmo said.

Most women alleged their agents ignored their pleas to request the agents in Iraq to improve the working conditions and wages.

Most claimed they started complaining the moment they reached down there but the agents blocked them on social media, the most preferred means of communication.

Kezang said the agents in Iraq tortured her after the agents in Bhutan reported the Iraqis that she was complaining and instigating other women to complain.

The women contacted each other through social media and then formed groups. They first called the Royal Bhutan Police’s fixed phone number from Baghdad and were directed to a police officer, who assured them help.  After waiting for a month, some contacted their Parliament representatives, who got them in touch with the prime minister, foreign minister, police and army officers. “We are thankful to everyone who rendered help and support,” the 31-year-old woman from Punakha said. “The Prime Minister contacted us through social media and assured help.”

They alleged the Bhutanese agents told their counterparts in Iraq that Bhutan is a poor country and the government would not be able to afford the money to pay the employers. “This is the reason why some of us had to run away,” Wangmo said.

Police officials and the Department of Law and Order are recording the women’s statements.

Sources said there are about 28 women, who operated as agents, earning about USD 1,200 to 3,000 for each woman they sent to Iraq. While some are under custody, some are on bail and some still under investigation. It was also found that some victims have turned agents.

Meanwhile, Kezang is in touch with the Bangladeshi gardener who told her that the employer wants to shoot her. “I think of how difficult life is for him and how we are lucky to have our government rescue us,” she said. “My stay in Baghdad made me love my country more and realise how blessed we are here.”