New Delhi: It is the same old story again. Struggling to pay off her debts and desperately looking for ways to earn some extra money, a woman meets someone who promises her a possible transition into a better life. She takes up the offer only to discover later that she was tricked.

A 39-year-old Hyderabadi woman, Salma Begum, was duped by two men (working as agents) living in the same locality as her, who sent her to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on 21 January promising her a job. The agents allegedly sold her to a kafeel (sponsor) for Rs3 lakh, who later tried to force her to marry him. And when she started resisting, the torture—both physical and mental—began, reported The Times of India on 24 April.

While external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has taken up the case with the Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia, the incident brings back to the fore horrors faced by Indian blue-collar workers in Gulf countries.

In typical cases of trafficking, factors like poverty and low levels of education make a place a source state—which means a place from where the victim can be easily picked. And in almost every case, the “source" traffickers, the agents in Salma’s case, are known to the victims’ families. These traffickers work by either kidnapping the victims or luring them away by promising jobs, financial security and a better life in a big city or a different country. Trafficking is a sad story, irrespective of where it happens, but when it involves migration to a different country, leaving the family and all the support system behind, it becomes a trap difficult to escape.

In March this year, Bangalore Mirror carried the story of a woman, Ranjitha, who was sold for Rs3 lakh. According to the report, Ranjitha, who went to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to work as a domestic help so that she could clear the loans she had taken for her daughter’s wedding, was made to work in a new house every single week for no food or money. In another case in 2015, an employer chopped off the right arm of a 58-year-old Indian woman, Kasturi Munirathinam, in Riyadh when she tried to escape. Munirathinam was also working as a domestic help.

Gulf countries, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have long been top destinations for labourers, most of whom work in construction, transport and other low-paying sectors like domestic work. According to data from eMigrate, the Indian government’s official recruitment channel launched in June last year, while 7.8 lakh Indians migrated in 2015 to 18 Emigration Clearance Required countries, like Saudi Arabia, the number came down to 5.2 lakh in 2016. Specifically, the number of Indians who went to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia fell by half in 2016 compared to 2015 (3 lakh Indians migrated officially in 2015, while the number was 1.65 lakh in 2016). According to a February 2017 Outlook magazine piece, there are close to 2.96 million Indians living and working in Saudi Arabia— “making Indians the largest expatriate community there, forming 30% of the total expatriates of around 10 million".

As tempting as moving to a different country seems from a distance, cases like Salma’s are not isolated. The Centre for Indian Migrant Studies, an organisation funded by the International Labour Organisation’s South Asia Labour Migration Governance, has received 86 complaints of physical and mental abuse from Indian women workers in distress from various Gulf countries in the last 10 months, according to its director Rafeek Ravuther.

According to the US department of state’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, non-payment of wages is the most common complaint from foreign workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, while employers withholding workers’ passports remains a widespread problem. The report says, “The foreign worker population is the most vulnerable to trafficking in Saudi Arabia, particularly female domestic workers due to their isolation inside private residences."

Also, due to Saudi Arabia’s requirement under its sponsorship or kafala system that foreign workers obtain an exit visa from their employers to leave the country legally, some, according to the Report, are forced to work for months or years beyond their contract term because their employers will not grant them an exit permit.

“We know international trafficking happens in India, but there is no authentic data on this for anyone to act on it. Even interstate trafficking becomes difficult because it requires coordination between all the required systems—legal, judiciary—of the two states. It becomes even more difficult when two countries are involved," says NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan’s director, campaigns and victim assistance, Rakesh Senger.

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