Nepali women trafficked to UAE, sexually abused and exploited
Access to justice at both destination and origin remains elusive
Krisha* was working as a domestic worker in a household in Dubai. After being repeatedly sexually abused by her employer and unable to escape, the 28-year-old from Nepal’s Sindhupalchok district tried to kill herself twice. She also tried to flee from the house, but to no avail. She then gave in to her employer’s demands, in the hope that it would help her escape. Krisha managed to return home after two years of physical and mental exploitation. She filed a complaint with Nepal’s Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau in July 2021.
“My boss, his son, and their relatives would rape me many times against my will,” said Krisha. “My agent in Nepal told me I would get a housekeeping job at a company there (in Dubai), but I ended up in this situation.”
More and more Nepali women like Krisha are being trafficked to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) under the promise of employment but end up being exploited by both the traffickers (agents) and bosses. Migrant-Rights.org’s review of documents and interviews with victims, activists, and law enforcement authorities has also revealed that some of them are specifically trafficked for sex work.
Pramila*, a 38-year-old from the Morang district in south-east Nepal was abused by her agent Madhu Shrestha, who promised to marry her and sent her to the UAE for what he called “office work.” ( A case has been filed against Shrestha and is pending in court).
“He abused me sexually for three days in Kathmandu and sent me to UAE,” said Pramila. “Once I arrived in Ajman, I was forced to work at a home where my Arab boss assaulted and attempted to rape me.”
After three months of being abused, she managed to run away with the help of the non-resident Nepali group in the UAE. She is currently taking shelter at Maiti Nepal, a Kathmandu-based non-profit organisation that provides services to victims of trafficking.
“We are dealing with human trafficking cases frequently and increasingly,” said Anjana Shrestha, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) at Nepal’s Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau, a specialised police unit dedicated to trafficking crimes.
“We have got reports of human trafficking cases of Nepalis from many countries, but we hear more about women victims from the Gulf.”
According to the Bureau’s data, it has rescued a total of 346 trafficking victims, including 280 women, from various countries since its establishment in 2018. But the actual number of victims is not available due to the lack of adequate official records. Nepal’s Human Rights Commission (NHRC) estimated that about 35,000 people, including 15,000 women and 5,000 children, were victims of trafficking in 2018 (the most recent year data is available).
“Once I arrived in Ajman, I was forced to work at a home where my Arab boss assaulted and attempted to rape me.”
The poor, illiterate, and unemployed have been most vulnerable as they are easily influenced by the trafficker’s promise of work opportunities abroad, according to activists and law enforcement authorities.
“The trafficking agents pose as legitimate recruitment brokers to convince the women,” said Anjana. “And the women who have no source of income at home trust the traffickers without question.”
In a statement given to the Bureau, Krisha said that she agreed to travel to the UAE with the “help” of agent Ramesh Kunwar as her financial condition at home was extremely weak. Ramesh — under the guise of a recruiter — promised he would send her to work at a hotel in Dubai, and that her salary would be between NPR20,000 and NPR 25,000 (US$165-205).
Trusting him, Krisha handed over NPR125,000 (US$1035) to him to process the paperwork. Likewise, Pramila believed her agent Madhu Shrestha, gave him NPR130,000, and flew to the UAE in November 2020. Despite the agents’ promises, both of them ended up as domestic workers.
“We cannot root out human trafficking from Nepal unless we address women’s socio-economic conditions,” said Manju Gurung, co-founder of Pourakhi Nepal, a Kathmandu-based migrant rights NGO.
“Driven by poverty and desperation, some women become ready to go abroad even when they know they will have to work as slaves. It’s not their choice but to combat their indigence. It’s really worrying,” she added.
A new modus operandi
The traffickers now operate under the guise of foreign employment agents and take victims into confidence, as opposed to previous tactics, where girls were abducted and forcefully sent to India’s brothels. Despite the change in trafficking tactics, the consequences for Nepali women remain just as devastating: they continued to be sold in foreign lands, mainly in the Gulf, according to Nepal police.
“It is more like human smuggling, rather than trafficking, these days where traffickers convince the victims to make sure the victims themselves cooperate with them to go abroad, and traffickers even give the semblance that they are ‘real’ recruitment agents,” says Anurag Dwivedi, Superintendent of Police (SP) at the Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau.
According to Dwivedi, traffickers keep the victims in slave-like conditions at different ‘holding centres’ in various countries before selling them to the ‘bosses’ in the Gulf.
Pramila says she was kept in a den-like holding centre in Kathmandu for three days, along with several other girls. When she arrived in the UAE, a Nepali woman named ‘Nisha’ picked her from the Sharjah International Airport, held her for a few days in another holding centre, and then sold her for SAR15,000(US$4,000) to a Saudi national living there.
Traffickers increasingly use mobile technologies and social media to lure the girls and even fix the price of the girls with potential clients in the Gulf. “Our investigation shows the (trafficking) agents send the girls’ photos to the potential clients and the clients choose from the large pool of girls,” said Dwivedi.
According to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons report, traffickers bribe government officials to include false information in genuine Nepali passports and provide fraudulent documents to prospective labour migrants or foreign employment agents. They also bribe victims’ parents to not provide testimony in cases. And sometimes, victims’ families and the political party leaders are themselves complicit in trafficking rings.
Krisha’s agent Ramesh Kunwar told her he had made a ‘setting’ – a codeword widely used among corrupt officials to refer to their collusion – with immigration officials so she would not have trouble at the airport. Unsurprisingly, a ‘friend’ of Kunwar appeared and escorted Krisha through Tribhuvan International. Besides Nepal’s airport, traffickers also transported Nepali women through India, Sri Lanka, and Burma before sending them to the Gulf nations, according to the police.
"UAE’s sponsorship system (Kafala) also places women in a precarious situation [...] employers often confiscate workers’ passports and documents, and restrict their mobility."
Bans don’t work
In 2017, the Nepal government banned Nepali women from migrating for domestic work to the Gulf. Activists say the ban has only exacerbated their vulnerability to trafficking.
“But it has only increased the risk and exploitation of women as they began travelling through unauthorised and unsafe routes, mostly via India,” said Gurung.
In 2020, after more than three years, a parliamentary committee had directed the government to lift the ban on the migration of female domestic workers younger than age 24. Despite the committee’s directive, the government has not issued any work permits to female domestic workers since 2016, so women are still seeking other — illegal — routes to go abroad.
Furthermore, the Foreign Employment Act of 2007 is silent on human trafficking and smuggling. And Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act of 2007 does not address trafficking under the veil of foreign employment opportunities.
“The intermediaries often take advantage of the existing legal ambiguities,” said Neha Choudhary, national project coordinator at the International Labor Organisation (ILO), Nepal. “There needs to be a harmonisation between the applicable laws to broaden definitions and recognise human trafficking that takes place in the course of foreign employment.”
“My boss, his son, and their relatives would rape me many times [...] My agent in Nepal told me I would get a housekeeping job at a company there (in Dubai), but I ended up in this situation.”
Turning a blind eye
In addition to Nepal’s laws, the UAE’s sponsorship system (Kafala) also places women in a precarious situation. Destination countries, including the UAE, do not recognise or abide by the bans placed at origin. Once the worker lands in the country, they can be employed as domestic workers without approval from the Nepali embassy. The UAE’s Tadbeer centres, which aim to centralize domestic worker recruitment, can process the paperwork required for domestic worker visas after the worker has arrived in the country.
In the UAE, as in other GCC states, employers often confiscate workers’ passports and documents, and restrict their mobility. As a result, they cannot leave the country or even change their employment; instead, they remain trapped in houses and subjected to abuse and exploitation.
“We need immediate larger policy reforms and effective implementation of legislation to combat human trafficking taking place in the process of labour migration in both Nepal and major countries of destination and ensure safety for all categories of migrant workers,” Choudhary added.
The UAE’s visit visa system has facilitated labour and sex trafficking for years, but authorities lack the will to remedy its loopholes. There are also few safeguards for victims of trafficking; access to support and shelters is limited, with the latter generally restricted to sex trafficking victims alone; and according to the 2021 TIP report, the government prosecuted no cases of labour trafficking in 2020.
Difficulty filing complaints
According to activists and law enforcement officials, trafficking victims face a range of difficulties when filing complaints. “Trafficked women are often uneducated and unaware,” said Gurung. “They are not aware of the legal procedures of filing complaints and they do not have access to the embassy and other law enforcement agencies either.”
The Foreign Employment Act established two mechanisms – a complaints investigation unit in the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE), and a Foreign Employment Tribunal – through which a victim can file a complaint against the foreign employment agents and agencies. “However, these mechanisms are neither responsive nor receptive,” Gurung said.
The victims also hesitate to file complaints as, in many cases, their family members and relatives are also involved, she added. Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment has maintained an online portal allowing migrant workers facing abusive or untenable situations overseas to file a request for repatriation.
But according to the TIP report, the NGOs combating human trafficking reported that “many migrants lacked the requisite computer access or skills to use the site.” The report further states: “although the government had national standards for victim care, referral efforts remained ad hoc and inadequate.”
Sources at the Nepal police say it has been harder to repatriate Nepali victims from the UAE as both governments lack coordination. “Due to the lack of extradition treaty and mutual legal assistance treaty between two countries, it has been a big problem for us to give justice to the victim and hold culprits accountable.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Photo via Seki Chin/Flickr