By Miriam Gathigah
NAIROBI, Oct 3 2019 (IPS) - Six years ago Mary Njambi* received news of a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity far away from her poverty-stricken village situated in the heart of Kiambu County, Central Kenya. She was 20 years old, a single mother and out of work.
“My best friend told me that rich families in Saudia (Saudi Arabia) were in need of house maids. My salary would be 1,000 dollars per month and overtime,” Njambi tells IPS.
Her friend took her to a recruiting agency in downtown Nairobi where all travel arrangements were made at no cost to her.
Three months later, Njambi and 15 other girls made that fateful journey to Saudi Arabia.
“We all separated at the airport and I was taken to my employer’s home. The moment I walked in, a woman started barking orders at me in Arabic even though I did not speak the language,” she says. At this point, Njambi had no way of knowing that she had been trafficked.
Kenya a transit point for trafficking
The 2019 Global Report Trafficking in Persons report released in June by the United States Department of State profiles Kenya as a source, transit point and destination for people subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour.
Released every year, the report classifies countries into four tiers based on their government’s demonstrated commitment to eliminate human trafficking.
- Tier 1 ranking is the highest and indicates that a government meets the minimum standards of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000.
- A country such as Kenya, with a Tier 2 rating, has not met these standards but has made significant efforts to do so.
- The Tier 2 Watch List, on which Kenya was placed until 2015, is similar to Tier 2 with the exception that the number of human trafficking victims is significantly high or significantly increasing.
- Tier 3, which is the worst ranking, indicates that a country such as Saudi Arabia has not met minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking, and is not making significant efforts to do so.
“These efforts include criminalising human trafficking and providing care for survivors,” Victor Amugo, a prosecutor at Kilifi Law Courts, Coastal region which is a hub for human trafficking to Somalia, tells IPS.
According to Wilkister Vera, Kakamega’s County Police Commander in Western Kenya, law enforcers are diligently fighting human trafficking.
“We are targeting the entire network of recruiters, places where victims are held before they are moved, transportation and following the paper trail including work permits and passports,” she tells IPS.
“Systems are also in place to take care of victims through the National Referral Mechanism,” she adds.
Young women and girls the most vulnerable
The Counter Trafficking Data Collaborative, a data hub on human trafficking, affirms that like Njambi, children and youth are more vulnerable to human trafficking for primarily sexual exploitation and forced labour.
- One in every six victims trafficked is a child,
- Two-thirds are aged 18 through 29,
- 17 percent are aged between 30 and 47, and
- Less than one percent are over 47 years.
“Poverty and gender inequalities are some of the factors that make women and girls vulnerable to human trafficking,” Zuleikha Hassan, Kwale County Member of Parliament, and founder of Tawfiq Muslim Association, tells IPS. “We have to aggressively educate communities to identify human trafficking situations that come disguised as the job of a lifetime.”
Njambi says that back-breaking house work, working for at least 18 hours a day and sleeping on the floor characterised the first few days of employment. It quickly escalated to physical and sexual violence.
Days spiralled into months without a single day off and with no pay. “One day I went to the rooftop and threatened to jump off if they did not take me back home and it worked,” she narrates.
This was in 2013, at that time, news that hundreds of Kenyan girls were distressed and stranded in the Middle East was spreading across the country.
“The lucky ones made it home bruised and battered. Others came back in coffins. In 2014, the government banned Kenyans from travelling to the Middle East for work,” says Dinah Mbula*, who runs a recruiting agency in downtown Nairobi.
“There was a crackdown by the government targeting recruiting agencies but horror stories did not scare desperate unemployed people from going to the Middle East,” Mbula tells IPS.
Victims of trafficking treated like criminals
In 2000, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol), marked an important transition into the modern movement against human trafficking.
Kenya is signatory to the Palermo Protocol, which led to the domestication of the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2010, which came into effect in 2012.
“Section 1 of the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act criminalises sex and labour trafficking,” says Amugo.
Although the Trafficking in Persons report affirms that there are now more prosecutions and convictions of traffickers in Kenya, Amugo says that the numbers could rise if all prosecutions were made under the anti-trafficking laws rather than the more lenient immigration or labour violations laws.
Those convicted under anti-trafficking laws serve 15 years to life imprisonment, a fine of not less than 50,000 dollars, or both.
“Victims of human trafficking are treated like criminals. That is why recruiters continue doing their job because they know chances that a victim will report to the police are next to zero,” Mbula expounds.
Kenya bans and then lifts ban on citizens working the Middle East
Also, this East African nation has lifted the ban on its citizens travelling to the Gulf for work.
The Kenyan government signed bi-lateral agreements with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates and lifted the ban in 2017.
The government insisted on re-vetting recruitment agencies after lifting the ban. But Mbula says that more than 1,000 agencies were vetted and only 100 were cleared but because of corruption “we are still in business with or without a license.”
From early 2019, Kenya allowed Saudi Arabia to recruit domestic workers again.
According to the Ministry of Labour, at least 130,000 Kenyans work as domestic workers in the Arabian Gulf.
Njambi confirms that it is easier to just disappear in the village than speak out because “people tell you to be grateful you came back alive. There is no support of any kind or counselling.”
She now runs a grocery store at her local shopping centre.
She says that victims are often compared to others who went to the Middle East and succeeded: “People say your experience was just bad luck and advise you to try other countries like Lebanon. My story is repeating itself everyday because people are desperate.”
*Names changed to protect identity of source