Isha knew she was in trouble when her passport was snatched from her hands. The 27-year-old from Sierra Leone had just arrived in the Omani capital, Muscat, believing she was to start a well-paid job at a restaurant. Instead, her recruitment agent bundled her into a car and drove her to a house where she was told she would be working as a live-in maid.
“My agent told me he could take my passport because he had bought me,” she says. “I was confused. How can you buy a human being?”
At 5am, a few hours after she arrived, she was woken by her new employer who ordered her to clean the house and then get his children ready for school. “This is not the work I came to Oman for,” she says. “My agent in Sierra Leone lied to me.”
The kafala system of employment still ties migrant workers to the employer who brings them to the Gulf, allowing widespread exploitation to persist, despite years of campaigning by human rights groups.
Now rights groups are warning that the Covid pandemic has made conditions even more difficult for migrant domestic workers in Oman who come from poorer countries such as Sierra Leone. Trapped in private homes during lockdown, many have faced a great risk of violence, are being made to work longer hours and are earning less as the economic dip hits their employers.
Such pressures have led to women running away from their employers, but their lack of rights puts them in a nightmarish situation. One group working to support domestic workers has warned that 200 Sierra Leonean women are stranded and homeless in Oman. Many were trafficked there, tricked like Isha into thinking that a better life was waiting for them.
Sierra Leone has been a trafficking hotspot since the aftermath of its civil war in 2005, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Trafficking is further driven by poverty, exacerbated by the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
“There are all sorts of different tricks that are pulled on them; they are told they would have their pick of jobs, or that they are coming to get an education,” says Sari Heidenreich, at Project 189, an organisation based in Germany that promotes the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East. “Very few of them are told they will be working in [private] homes.”
Sierra Leone is increasingly a leading source of trafficking to Oman, according to the IOM.
“The majority of calls I receive from women needing assistance in Oman are from Sierra Leone. There are a lot of traffickers in Sierra Leone,” says Dana Al-Othman, external relations and projects assistant at the IOM in Kuwait. “The women want to earn money to take care of their families, and they’re presented [by local recruiters] with what they think is a golden opportunity.”
Much of the trafficking to Oman comes via neighbouring United Arab Emirates, according to Human Rights Watch.
Some victims are highly educated and are told they have been recruited for professional jobs.
Dija, 24, a new graduate with a degree in nursing, believed she had a job waiting for her at a hospital in Europe. She had decided to travel abroad for work to support her family, including her young daughter, after losing her partner to Ebola in 2015.
Instead, she is trapped in a house in Salalah, near the Yemeni border. Her recruiters sent her on a journey from her home in Freetown, overland to Guinea, then on flights to Addis Ababa and Muscat. She had no idea she was going to Oman.
“My agent said I would have my own apartment, and earn $500 [£360] a month,’ she says. “When I boarded the flight, I still thought I was going to Europe. I did not think I was coming here. This place is just like hell for me.”
Isha is among those now stuck in Oman. “My employers took my phone; they beat me up,” she says. “There was no time to rest, and they would not give me food unless they felt like it.”
After she had not received her $180 monthly salary for three consecutive months, she ran away.
Sierra Leone has no embassy in Oman so Isha had nowhere to turn and her employer eventually tracked her down. He said he’d let her leave him if she repaid the $1,560 fee he had given the recruitment agent. Since she had no money, he decided to sell her on.
“He said there is another man that wants me to go to work; I was told to go with him and take my bag,” says Isha. “I didn’t know what to do. I really want to find a way to go back to my family.”