Hundreds of female migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia are being held in the Olaya detention camp in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Their only crime running away from abusive former employers.
In a telephone interview with one detainee, a BBC reporter was bombarded with voices from other inmates, all begging for help to return to their native countries (read the full story here).
Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan women in particular migrate to the Middle East every year looking for work, often as domestic servants. The earnings they manage to send back to family and friends provide a major source of foreign revenue for the country.
However the life they find often does not provide the financial security they had hoped for, and too frequently puts their lives in the dangerous hands of abusive employers. Tales of physical and mental violence, imprisonment and slavery are all too common. Famously in August 2010, one Sri Lankan maid who had escaped from her Saudi employer was found to have around 24 nails in her body.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Saudi law makes it impossible for these workers to leave their employer and legal “sponsor” without defaulting on their status as a legitimate migrant. Further, their efforts to return to their native countries are compounded by either the bureaucracy, or outright failure, of migrants’ native embassies and the Saudi authorities to address an increasingly worrying situation.
Kusuma Nandani has been an inmate of Olaya since 2009, when she was rescued from her employers after 15 years of involuntary servitude. Yet despite allegedly being granted an exit visa some time ago, she has not been sent home to Sri Lanka. She told the BBC, “I have no one in Sri Lanka. My parents are gone, my husband is trying to divorce me, I have only one daughter who doesn’t know who to approach to get help”.
The labour officer at the Sri Lankan embassy in Riyadh claimed the files of the Olaya detainees have been transferred to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau in Colombo, however attempts to contact them for further information have all failed.
Reform by either the Sri Lankan or Saudi authorities must be swift, to prevent an already desperate situation for many current and ex domestic workers from deteriorating.