… after harrowing experiences abroad

Dechen Dolkar

Working abroad in the Middle East, Pema, a 30-year-old former nun, endured a harrowing ordeal she never anticipated as a girl from a peaceful country. In 2019, driven by a desire to support her family and limited earning opportunities at home due to her primary education, she sought better prospects.

Pema’s journey began when she met an agent through Facebook. Promised employment in a hotel in the Middle East with a monthly income of USD 350 to USD 400, she sent her passport copy. Soon, she received an air ticket to Iraq via India. Travelling with a group of women, they faced a shocking twist when their passports were seized upon arrival in Iraq. For three days, they endured a gruelling journey in a truck without food or basic comforts. Pema was ultimately sent to work as a housemaid, losing her freedom and mobile phone.

A growing number of women from Bhutan have been seeking employment opportunities in the Middle East in recent years due to limited socioeconomic prospects in their homeland. This includes high school graduates, those with no formal education, individuals grappling with unemployment, financial instability, and single mothers burdened by debts.

Many are lured by the perception that heading to the Middle East offers a less cumbersome and more cost-effective alternative to working in developed countries. Unfortunately, this rush has spawned illegal employment agents who engage in human-trafficking, preying on vulnerable individuals, particularly women. These agents promise lucrative jobs and high salaries, earning substantial profits for each woman trafficked from overseas.

However, the grim reality awaiting these women in the Middle East is far from the promises made. They often endure mistreatment, forced labour, sexual harassment, and, in some tragic cases, sexual exploitation. Most end up as housemaids, their ages ranging from 21 to 51.

Alarming statistics

Records reveal that between 2018 and 2022, 167 women were trafficked illegally: 160 to Iraq and 7 to Oman. The government managed to rescue 163 victims from 2020 to 2021, but some remained unaccounted for in Iraq. It is suspected that at least 31 individuals were involved in these human-trafficking operations, with 29 facing accusations. A couple from Trongsa, Bhutan, is charged with trafficking 44 women to the Middle East, predominantly Iraq.

Harrowing experiences

Dema, for instance, experienced modern slavery conditions, characterized by exploitation from which she couldn’t escape due to threats, violence, coercion, and abuse of power. Pema’s ordeal took a more sinister turn when she was taken to a prostitution centre, where she suffered sexual abuse and exploitation. Attempts to return to her housemaid role resulted in torture and beatings.

Desperate to escape, Dema used her employer’s phone one night to contact her friends in Iraq and shared her home address. An Iraqi official tried to rescue her, but her employer threatened her with a gun. Despite the risks, she managed to escape one morning, leaving behind her belongings.

She sought help from an officer working to rescue Bhutanese citizens in Iraq, and with the assistance of a taxi driver, she reached safety, reuniting with other Bhutanese friends in 2020.

Similarly, Karma, a 26-year-old who travelled to Iraq in 2018, shared a similar ordeal. Her agent had arranged an air ticket and a hotel in Delhi and Dubai, along with a tourist visa for Dubai. To avoid detection, they were instructed to mislead immigration officers, claiming they were visiting Dubai for a vacation to meet relatives. Upon arrival in Iraq, their passports were confiscated, and they were assigned to different households as housemaids. Attempting to leave their jobs meant facing a hefty refund demand of USD 5,000, based on a two-year contract written in Arabic.

Rescue efforts

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) revealed that human-trafficking began in 2015, but a significant surge occurred between 2018 and 2019. In 2020, a group of women used social media to plead for help, leading to a swift response from the government. The rescue effort was initiated with support from local authorities in Iraq, the International Organization for Migration, foreign embassies, NGOs, and individuals.

The Royal Government of Bhutan allocated USD 6 million (Nu 500M) for the rescue mission from 2020 to 2021, and a relief flight was dispatched to Iraq.

Preventing exploitation

OAG officials highlighted that many victims were initially contacted through social media by agents who promised high salaries and good working conditions. They also noted that Indian agents facilitated travel from India to the Middle East. Due to a lack of awareness about trafficking laws, the victims were easy prey for exploitation, abuse, and sexual harassment by their employers.

The OAG officials clarified that the moment a person’s passport was seized, it constituted exploitation. The police have completed their investigations and forwarded the cases to OAG, with no new cases of trafficking reported recently.

Tandin Wangmo, the National Project Coordinator from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), emphasized the need for the government to focus on protecting the rights of workers, especially women in the informal and hospitality sectors. She called for the enhancement of service providers’ skills in labour, immigration, and the police to better identify and address human-trafficking cases.

After being rescued and returning to Bhutan, victims received support from the Respect, Educate, Nurture, and Empower Women (RENEW) organization, which provided psychosocial assistance, counselling, livelihood skills training, and shelter.

To date, the court has convicted 21 individuals, sentencing them to prison terms ranging from three to seven years, while some cases remain pending. Many survivors have managed to secure employment, but some continue to await opportunities.

This story was produced with the help of Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.