Sometime in December 2019, Choden heard stories of Bhutanese leaving for the Middle East and earning good income. She has also seen her neighbours receive money from their children living and working abroad.
She thought it was an opportunity to help her single mother and sister and make their lives better. She got in touch with a woman, an agent. The process was quick and after a few weeks she was in Baghdad, Iraq.
Once in Iraq, it was a different story. Working from 5am in the morning until about midnight without break or proper food, Choden wanted to come back. It was not easy to escape her employers. After months of struggle, she was rescued. Like Choden, hundreds left for the Middle East looking for greener pastures. And like her, many had to be rescued.
Yesterday, on the command of His Majesty The King, a special relief Drukair flight to Dubai brought home 132 women evacuated from Iraq. This is not the first. In the last few years, over 160 Bhutanese women trafficked to Iraq were rescued.
While the women and their parents are relieved to be in the country, the horrendous experience young Bhutanese, especially women, go through in foreign countries speaks volume of our policies. Going abroad to work is not a preference. We belong to a region from where millions of people are trying to leave every day. It is not out of choice, it is out of desperation.
Lost in ideas of how to create jobs for the ever-growing young people finishing various levels of schools, we started looking for jobs abroad. The Middle East needs people to work. But it is not the best region for the millions of immigrant workers.
There had been success stories of how Bhutanese sent through government overseas employment programmes had changed lives. But the promise of a better life made many vulnerable to people taking advantage of the desperation. People, especially young women, are the most vulnerable when they are burdened with the pressure to repay their parents for the years of investments they made in educating them. They can’t go back to their village to work on a farm. They have to make a living and fulfill the aspirations of their parents.
The so-called illegal agents made the most of it. That is not surprising given that human trafficking is a lucrative business. Bhutanese had been involved in trafficking our own people. This is a complicated problem because the government or authorities are the last to know about it. There are not many choices for the victims. They have left through illegal agents and they cannot complain. But that doesn’t mean they should be neglected. Our embassies are seen as the saviour, but they are not able to help.
Without jobs in the country, more Bhutanese would want to go abroad looking for jobs. The stories coming in from countries like Iraq – of mistreatment, exploitation and abuse should remind our people of the risk of working abroad. Unlike those leaving for the US, Europe or Australia, those in the Middle East are not after better opportunities. They leave out of desperation. There are no jobs in the country.