When Gwen* approached a job-placement agency in Nairobi, Kenya, she was promised a job in a hotel in Dubai. Instead she ended up in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).
“I thought I was going to Dubai. I never understood well where I was headed until I set foot in the job placement office in Erbil,” recalls Gwen who has been now living in Erbil for three years.
She never suspected she would be taken to Iraq because “Kenya doesn’t deliver visas to Iraq or Kurdistan.”
En route to Erbil, Gwen had a night layover in Dubai where a visa to enter Erbil was waiting for her. “I believe the job-placement agency is part of a network with connections in Dubai and Erbil. I don’t how they got a visa for a Kenyan citizen like me,” she says.
When Gwen finally arrived in Erbil, she started to realize that she had been trafficked into a country she didn’t want to go to. “These people from the agency are soft spoken, you cannot detect whether or not they are lying even if you try to be cautious. They are very smart,” she says. Yet, the services sold by the job-placement agency were convincing enough to make her believe a better future was awaiting abroad.
Back home in Nairobi on previous occasions, Gwen had been scammed twice by so-called “job-placement agencies.” “I gave money twice, to people who promised to help me get a job abroad, they took the money and I never saw them again,” she says.
Although she had been deceived, Gwen decided to take a chance and stayed on in Erbil. Her dire financial situation left her with few choices but to accept to be placed with a family as a housekeeper. She was also afraid to confront the man running the office in Erbil. “He beat girls when they tried to confront him about his lack of honesty. I decided to remain quiet,” she recalls.
After being placed with a Kurdish family for two weeks, Gwen was sent back to the job-placement agency. “I don’t speak Kurdish and my Arabic was weak, we could not understand each other. After two weeks, they decided I was not fit for the job and sent me back to the agency without pay,” she recounts.
That same day, Gwen was placed with a family of expats. She stayed with them for six months, during which time several of her worker and human rights were violated. She earned a meager monthly income of USD 256. “I was poorly treated,” she says, “for instance, I had no day off and worked countless hours. I was not well fed and I was not allowed to leave the house even to go to church.”
During those six months, Gwen says she was not allowed to interact with the outside world and couldn’t send home remittances. “They didn’t let me purchase credit for my phone, so I couldn’t even call my family,” says Gwen.
Eventually Gwen decided to escape the house. However, her options were limited without her passport, which was kept by her employers . She decided to go back to the job-placement office to tell them her story. “They said they couldn’t do anything for me so they took me back to the family. When I went back to the family, they called the police on me. Luckily, the police gave me 14 hours to either leave and return to my country or stay here. I decided to return home,” recalls Gwen.
Gwen got her passport back and paid for her airfare. However she says she felt ashamed to go back empty-handed. This shame is often shared by migrants who hope for professional opportunities abroad but end up being abused and/or poorly treated by their employers in addition to receiving little protection from the hosting countries.
Her journey was not over yet. “A miracle happened at the airport,” says Gwen who had met a woman who offered her a real work opportunity in the humanitarian sector. “This time, I felt it was genuine. The woman didn’t ask for money in return,” says Gwen.
The opportunity was indeed real. Gwen was hired by a French organization, in Erbil as an office keeper and later as a storekeeper. Over the course of one year and half working with the organisation, Gwen’s living conditions improved drastically. “I was earning USD600 a month when I started with them and during my last months there, I made USD1,300 per month,” says Gwen. “I was able to pay my rent and send money home. I used to send home about USD1,000 a month.”
Eventually, Gwen lost her job with the organisation after she was unable to pay the high fees requested by a lawyer to renew her work permit and local ID. She now again struggles to make ends meet; yet she fears that returning to Kenya won’t improve her conditions. “I came here to get myself a good future. I cannot return now,” she says.
In 2015, a report by the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa found Kenya had the highest informal sector employment among nine countries covered. The high level of informal sector workers is attributed to the inability of the formal sector to absorb the huge number of job seekers. According to data from Kenya’s Economic Survey 2015, the informal sector employed 11.8 million people in 2014 against 2.4 million in the formal sector.
Despite hardships, Gwen refuses to use her experience as a deterrent to find jobs abroad. “Not every family will try to exploit you. I worked as a maid in Saudi Arabia for three years and I had a great experience. I am still in touch with the family,” recalls Gwen.
Gwen’s story is a reminder that women migrating into private households, thousands of miles away from their country of origin, are motivated by higher salaries and better prospects in the destination countries. Yet, a lack of information before leaving their home countries puts them at risk of trafficking and exploitation.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide of which more than 11 million are women and girls. Migrant workers and indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to forced labour.
The International Organization for Migration, in cooperation with government representatives, assists victims of trafficking to return to their home countries. Since 1994, IOM has assisted approximately 70,000 trafficked persons.
* Name changed over safety concerns.
Hajer Naili is a journalist and the Communications and Social Media Coordinator at IOM Washington, D.C.