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Irin Focus On Trafficking Of Women

UN Integrated Regional Information Network (Nairobi), 28 February 2001

Nairobi—A new study by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has highlighted the widespread human rights abuses suffered by Ethiopian women trafficked to Arab countries. The study, launched in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa last week, cites cases of rape, death in prison, starvation, confinement, and physical abuse.

The report of the IOM findings noted that at least 67 women migrants died whilst working in the Arab countries from 1997-1999. The study was based on extensive interviews with 36 female returnees from Beirut and Bahrain. Information was also gleaned from the files of women migrant returnees in the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, local newspapers and complaints filed with the Federal Police.

Estimates of the number of Ethiopian women working in Arab countries vary from 12,000 to 20,000. Most work in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Typically, migrants are single females between the ages of 20 and 30 seeking an income abroad due to lack of employment opportunities in Ethiopia. Usually, an agent offers the women domestic work in an Arab country for a salary of about US $100 a month.

The family then has to raise hundreds of dollars to cover a visa, air ticket and administration. Often the money comes from a high interest loan that can saddle the family with huge debt for years to come. Some women entered into contracts to pay travel costs back from their future salaries, says the report.

Once visas arrive, the women travel to their destinations with only a passport and a document that serves as an entry visa. Generally, no other documents are signed regarding pay or conditions of work. But the report highlights the fact that many women have to sign a document stating they will pay a penalty of US $3000 if they leave the job or return to Ethiopia. Women returnees from Beirut said that on arrival there they had their passports confiscated by immigration officials who then handed them to local employment agents. From this moment onwards the women are at the mercy of the agent. Some women interviewed for the study said that they would then be confined at the agent’s premises until taken away by employers.

Once with an employer the women commonly experienced very long working hours, poor food, beatings and lack of contact with friends and family. One woman interviewed said she was confined to the house for three years and had to work 18 hours a day with no time off. They have no freedom to change or quit jobs. According to the study, some employers refused to pay the first few months’ salary saying they had paid a large sum to hire the women. Because of the harsh conditions, some women ran away from their employers, many ended up in prison where conditions were even worse. Many are raped in prison or die in custody. The report pointed out that working and living conditions in the Arab countries varied widely and that some interviewees testified that they were treated humanely and paid regularly.

The report calls for attacking the trafficking problem at its root, namely promoting skills training, education and job opportunities for young women to reduce the attraction of economic migration. It also wants to see continuous information campaigns on the dangers and risks of unprotected migration. Better laws more rigorously applied would also serve to reduce trafficking, the report stated.