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Kenyans in Saudi: Modern Day Slavery

On September 12, 2011

Two weeks ago, Asha Ali, a Kenyan woman working in Saudi Arabia, sent the following SOS message to her mother:

"Mom, yesterday my boss asked me if I want to be sold or not. I fear he might kill me. If it is God’s plan that I die in Saudi Arabia, there is nothing I can do. Bye mom"

The family of the 22-year old, who had been in Saudi Arabia since March, have not heard from her since.

Violations such as sexual harassment, violence, torture and starvation are very real risks for Kenyan migrant women working in Saudi Arabia, according to this article in The Standard (Kenya). Around 40,000 Kenyans work in Saudi Arabia, and 400 were deported from the Kingdom in the past 12 months alone - many of them bringing disquieting stories home with them:

They paint a picture of a kingdom where upon entry; most workers have no choice but to surrender their travel documents along with their human rights and dignity to employers.

The most common violations include sexual assault; overwork with no pay, torture, lack of privacy and starvation. Chilling murders sum it all, with the recent discovery of a body of a Kenyan girl locked up in a freezer adding to statistics of unexplained murders of migrants in The Gulf. Fatuma Masoud, a mother of four from Kisauni, also sent an SoS to Mombasa last weekend. She recently fell off a ladder while cleaning her boss’s home at Al Khudar, Saudi Arabia and suffered a fracture to her back. But she continues to be overworked and cannot access any medical help.

"I am always locked in; eat smelly food or leftovers, one meal a day. I am a Kenyan, please help me get out of here, alert my embassy. You are my last hope," she wrote. When contacted, her employer, Hussein al Doussary, claimed to be unaware of the situation. Ms Fatuma is yet to receive any help. Most survivors make it back to Kenya with broken limbs. And although their accounts mirror scripts akin to gruesome movies, they are the reality.

The majority of Kenyans that migrate to Kenya are young Muslim women aged between 22 and 35 years, according to Khalid Hussain, Executive Director of Kenyan NGO Muslims for Human rights (Muhuri)  .

Many are from middle-income backgrounds and have some tertiary education. Every year large numbers of women end up being tricked into paying large sums of money by corrupt recruitment agents, believing that they are destined for well-paid positions as saleswomen or hotel attendants, only to be diverted to what one observer described as a human 'warehouse' on arrival in Saudi Arabia. From there, the most likely outcome is that they will be sent to work as housemaids in slave-like conditions.

See full story by Joe Kiarie here.

The Kenyan Embassy in Saudi Arabia frequently receives pleas for help from migrant workers, who claim that they are treated 'like animals' by their employers, according to this article from Africa News.  Some, like 28-year old Salma Noor, a domestic worker, face regular physical and sexual abuse, but have nowhere to turn to for help, according to journalist Joyce J Wangui.

These examples from Kenya illustrate the gravity of the risks that migrant women in Saudi Arabia face.