Sierra Leonean migrants in Middle East: ‘Some used as sex workers, others as slaves’

Instead of the well-paying jobs they anticipate, many young women are exploited and abused

Fatima, Olivia and Mariatu were easily convinced to travel to the Middle East in the hope of earning money. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Fatima, Olivia and Mariatu were easily convinced to travel to the Middle East in the hope of earning money. Photograph: Sally Hayden

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When Mariatu ran out of money to keep studying, she made a decision that would change her life. Like many other young women from Sierra Leone, she had heard there were opportunities in the Middle East: employment in shops or restaurants, where she could earn and save significant amounts, before coming back to resume her studies.

Now 25, she travelled to Kuwait in 2018 with a group of other women, some of whom had taken loans to pay for passports and medical checks. Instead of the well-paying job she anticipated, Mariatu was forced to work as a domestic servant for 18 months without pay.

She cleaned, cooked and minded three children, toiling from 6am until midnight, seven days a week. For the first year, she was prohibited from contacting her family. Then she was raped by the man who owned the house. Afterwards, he reported her to the police, accusing her of stealing. She was imprisoned for three months, before being deported to Sierra Leone.

Mariatu arrived back in West Africa in March 2020, right as the coronavirus pandemic was spreading across the world. She was pregnant and her family – already under pressure as lockdowns commenced – ostracised her. Like the other women here, her name has been changed.

She is surviving without government assistance. “We are crying for help,” she said, explaining that she was a virgin before she travelled, and still feels pain looking at the baby in her arms.

Earlier this year, Sierra Leone’s government lifted a two-year ban on labour migration and overseas job recruitment, which was instituted because of the systemic exploitation and abuse of Sierra Leoneans who travelled abroad for work, particularly to the Middle East.

The US government’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons report said the labour migration moratorium had increased citizens’ vulnerability to trafficking by encouraging them to take informal routes abroad. It also found that while Sierra Leone’s government is making efforts to fight trafficking it is still not meeting “the minimum standards... in several key areas”.

Mariatu, pictured with the baby she gave birth to upon returning to Sierra Leone from Kuwait. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Mariatu, pictured with the baby she gave birth to upon returning to Sierra Leone from Kuwait. Photograph: Sally Hayden

In a year from 2020-2021, the government assisted in the repatriation of 130 Sierra Leoneans from Lebanon by providing travel documents and purchasing airline tickets, as well as the repatriation of 80 Sierra Leoneans from Kuwait. While the government allocated 1 billion Leones (€80,000) towards anti-trafficking efforts in 2020, no funding was reported in 2021.

Activists say many more people from a range of African countries are stranded in the Middle East and need help. The plight of Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon, for example, briefly received attention last year when employers began to abandon them at the doors of their consulate in Beirut.

In a small third-floor office in eastern Freetown, more than 100 women gathered to meet me, all of whom had similar tales to tell. They had flown to countries including Oman, Kuwait, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, persuaded by friends and recruitment agencies, or Sierra Leoneans they encountered online. They were trapped by the kafala system common in the Middle East, which binds foreign workers to an employer, leaving them without labour rights or the ability to escape an abusive situation.

Sheku Bangura, the director and founder of the Advocacy Network Against Irregular Migration, said his organisation is in touch with 800 women who recently returned from the Middle East. Many left Sierra Leone because of the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak, which “made people desperate”, he said. With limited resources, there is little done to help returnees.

Sheku Bangura, the director and founder of the Advocacy Network Against Irregular Migration, said his organisation is in touch with 800 women who recently returned from the Middle East. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Sheku Bangura, the director and founder of the Advocacy Network Against Irregular Migration, said his organisation is in touch with 800 women who recently returned from the Middle East. Photograph: Sally Hayden

“They have a lot of problems,” he said. “Some of them...were used as sex workers, others were used as slaves and worked without payment, some went to prisons, some tortured, some raped. They come back with fatherless babies. Most of them want to start a business. Some are traders, they used to do business here and used that money to travel. Some of them want to go back to school and learn a skill.”

He said the women suffer from a range of medical issues. While he is trying to work with the police to pursue convictions, success is unlikely. The country’s first human trafficking convictions happened only in 2020, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Over the following year 30 people were prosecuted and one convicted. The US government report said traffickers in Sierra Leone have been known to pay off victims’ families or bribe prosecutors to stop cases progressing.

“You are a slave, we paid a lot of money for you,” shouted the woman of the house

Olivia left during the labour migration moratorium. She says she was convinced into going to Oman by someone she got chatting to on Facebook. The woman seemed sympathetic and kind, while Olivia was an orphan who had just finished her secondary school exams and felt lost in life. The woman said she was also Sierra Leonean but had travelled to the Middle East to “make it”.

After two years working in a restaurant there, the woman said, Olivia could continue her studies in the best universities with all the funding she needed. As their conversations moved to WhatsApp, Olivia became hooked on the idea.

The now 23-year-old was induced to sell everything she owned, raising 5 million leones (€400) for a passport, police clearance and the medical certificate required to travel. She got a bus to Conakry in neighbouring Guinea, then boarded a flight with about 100 other African women.

Upon arrival, Olivia waited in the airport for two days, before she was picked up by a man carrying her photograph with her name written on it. At his house, instead of a warm welcome, his wife began to shout at her, saying she was smelly and needed to wash. When she asked where her room was, the couple said she would sleep in their kitchen. She asked which restaurant she would work in, and their response made it clear the restaurant didn’t exist.

“You are a slave, we paid a lot of money for you,” shouted the woman of the house. “If you don’t want to work with us you pay us back our money and go back to your country.”

The view from the Advocacy Network Against Irregular Migration, a small office in eastern Freetown. Photograph: Sally Hayden
The view from the Advocacy Network Against Irregular Migration, a small office in eastern Freetown. Photograph: Sally Hayden

She cleaned, ironed and cooked for 25 people living between three houses. Months passed without her being allowed to contact her family, and Olivia became sick, but got no medication. She says the owner of one of the houses gagged and raped her, threatening to kill her. Eventually, she was also reported to the police as a thief. In the police station, she says she was sexually assaulted again.

Now back in Freetown, she spits blood when she coughs and still has stomach problems. “My family despise me, I lost a lot of things,” she says.

Some of the deportees have spent most of their adult lives abroad – time they see as wasted. Fatima was 18 when she left for Lebanon. She visited a recruitment agency in central Freetown, where she was promised a wage of up to $1,000 a month – an inconceivable amount in a country where the gross annual national income, per person, was $540 in 2019.

Fatima was told to raise $500 to cover her flight and other costs. “All of us were so happy because in our country there is no job, even if you finish education,” she said.

She was picked up from the airport by a man who confiscated her passport, telling her he had paid $3,000 to the recruitment agency and now she was effectively a slave for him. She worked across three houses, caring for both children and the elderly, one of whom she says would hit her with a walking stick.

After three years, when she asked for the money she was owed, she was abandoned at the airport with nothing. At that point, she says she was abducted by another group of men and raped. She found a new job but that employer failed to pay her and reported her to the police for stealing.

In early 2021 Fatima was sent back to Freetown, after spending most of 2020 in prison.

“All my life is miserable. I achieved nothing,” she said. “There is no job for us, nothing good for us. We really need help, we are so hopeless in this country. If I have a way to get justice it will be right but I don’t think it’s possible.”

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