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As a country emphasising on the happiness and well-being of its citizens, Bhutan rescued more than 160 women who were tortured and ill-treated in the Middle East countries, especially in Iraq, Bahrain and Kurdistan.

Governed by the ‘kafala system’, millions of Asian and African women are tortured in the Middle Eastern countries on a daily basis, forced to work round the clock with little or no food.

With abusive immigration policies and no labour law protections, most women are underpaid. Wages are either delayed or withheld. Some were also physically or sexually abused.

The Bhutanese women, who went there in 2019, contacted many Bhutanese officials, including police, Members of Parliament and the government to rescue them. They even lodged formal complaints but nothing much progressed.

The rescue operation started only after His Majesty The King commanded that every effort and resource must be used to bring the women home safely. About USD 700,000 was spent to rescue the 160 women.

But we now hear that people are travelling to the countries again after obtaining clearance from the National Covid-19 task force. It is believed that the people have already left after signing an undertaking letter.

The government had a clear stand on the issue. Bhutanese intending to work overseas should route it through licensed overseas agents in the country so that the government could verify the working environment, living conditions and salary.

It also claimed to have developed a standard operating procedure that would address the issues of overseas employment and wrote to the governments of the Middle Eastern countries and requested them to issue work visas to Bhutanese jobseekers only if they produce official documents from the government.

The government also changed the authority mandated to process documents for overseas employment from the labour ministry to immigration department.

But what is now happening is that it is the National Covid-19 task force that is issuing the documents and not immigration department. With officials refusing to talk to media, it is not clear if due process has been followed and how the task force was given the mandate.

There are questions that remain unanswered. Will it be the responsibility of the task force to ensure that the people would be safe in the Middle Eastern countries? Why are the overseas employment agencies not allowed to operate if individuals could go? What about the 32 women, who are alleged of sending the 160 women to the Middle East countries and are being accused of trafficking?

Lack of monitoring and seriousness in implementing the process the government introduced to tackle the overseas employment issue would have disastrous implications. It’s time we learnt the lesson and implemented the procedures.

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