Monday, August 3, 2015

The Kuwait Debate

I was watching the recent CNN Freedom project series about human trafficking in the US by Jada Pinkett Smith and I was shocked. My mind instantly went to a new exodus –hundreds of young Cameroonian girls, mostly graduates travelling to Kuwait to work as housemaids. There is no Kuwait embassy in Yaoundé neither is there a high commission. So how does it happen? Middle men known as agents, most of them Cameroonians who live in Kuwait. Obtaining a Kuwait travel document is super easy. You just need to scan your passport’s biometric page, email it to an agent there who applies and obtains your travel doc from immigration and sends to you. There are almost zero rejections. Girls travel there via the aforementioned process generally on a one way ticket and little or no money. Upon arrival, Immigration grants you an entry stamp, no visa. Easy peasy. (But take note, the agent has made lots of money off you and trapped you.) You cannot fly back because you don’t have a return ticket or money to buy one even. And sometimes they may even confiscate your passport.

It is a high way to hell on earth for many of the girls who go there to work as housemaids. I hear many gory stories from Kuwait returnees at the airport’s arrival hall. Even Lebanon. A few of my colleagues have even recorded their experiences on their phones. You can listen to the horrible stories on soundcloud and read on blogs. They tell us that when they arrive there, they are sold and bought in a slave market and they go ‘home’ and work for incredibly long hours with little pay, some up to 21 hours a day even. Most of them get insulted, beaten, raped and locked up in tiny filthy rooms without them bathing. One explained how she had to babysit a dog and was instructed never to put it on the ground. She doesn't know if she's caught rabbies already. One narrated a story how her friend got pushed off a sky scraper and she fell to her death. Some see their friends get killed through torture. And they cannot return home because they don’t have a return ticket and can’t buy one. It is in fact, modern day slavery. Yet, the airlines still board girls traveling to Kuwait every day.
So why are girls still flocking to Kuwait?

1. Unemployment. Most of the girls blame the economic situation of the country. They narrate tales of graduating from university and living with their parents for years with no job. So they just want to travel the hell out, anywhere where they can find work. And since traveling to Kuwait is super easy, you know the rest.
2. Deceit by the agents. The middle men there tell all sorts of lies to these naïve girls about how they will earn lots of money just by being a maid. Some even say they will get the girls an American Visa after just a couple of months in Kuwait. They paint a very good Kuwait picture masking all the harsh realities, to the point that even some of the girls’ relatives are convinced by their sweet tongue. This can be summarized by a question asked by one of the girls’ uncles (a colonel for that matter) to my colleague when they met at the airport for her flight, “so when is my niece getting her American Visa in Kuwait after her housemaid work?” “Which American visa, colonel?” “Her agent told us after doing her maid work for a couple of months, he will get her an American visa just like he obtained her Kuwait travel papers. That an American visa is easy to obtain over there.” Oops, my colleague was stunned. (There is no such thing as an easy American visa after the housemaid work.)

3. Stubbornness. Some of these girls are very stubborn or should I say naïve? They listen to the horrible Kuwait stories on the media, they are told those stories by airport staff the day they are travelling and even by some battered girls who just landed from Kuwait. Yet, they don’t listen. They just want to board the plane and get away. They do a “what happens to others will not happen to me?” sort of shrug off and board. Some are intentionally traveling to do prostitution. When a beautiful girl was told that she may become a sex slave in Kuwait, she just replied, “Is it your vagina that is going to be used? It’s mine.”
4. The government has not put in place any action whatsoever to stop the Kuwait exodus which has even sparked a “Bring back our girls from Kuwait” campaign in the North West region.
So what can be done? I don’t think the government should place a ban on the Kuwait route like some Cameroonians advocate for, like it did on flights to Ebola stricken countries during the Ebola peak or CAR during the rebel takeover in Bangui. Those were high risk zones. Kuwait is not. We cannot change diplomatic policies between two countries because of the unfortunate adventures of a few hundred girls. Furthermore, I think there are fruitful ventures stemming from travel between the two countries that surpass the girls’ demise -diplomatic wise, investment wise, education wise etc.

Also, modern slavery and human trafficking happens everywhere -Philippinos in Saudi Arabia, xenophobic attacks of other Africans in parts of South Africa, Latinos in the US, even African Americans in their own country like Jada Pinkett recently portrayed. So if there is a government ban, multiple flight routes have to be banned too. I cannot propose all the solutions, but I think our government can tackle the problems beginning like this. Inform all the airlines to stop all the girls travelling to Kuwait to work as “housemaids”. Anyone travelling there should show justifiable evidence, whether for school, business transaction, diplomatic mission etc. (The airport commissioner has ordered that all Kuwait travellers must now carry a thousand dollars and possess a two way ticket). So in case things get rough, they can use the return ticket to fly back.

Create employment opportunities for the youth. I know the government cannot create jobs for every unemployed person but it can also encourage the private sector and especially medium and small scale enterprises, funding innovative projects by creative youth and giving them loans, encourage self-employment too. (I’ve lost count of my school mates and friends I’ve seen off into airplanes. Many of them are unwilling to return.) The government should also use the media and collaborate with NGO’s to educate the masses about the truth behind the Kuwait route and other countries like that. Most importantly, it should also embark on a campaign to arrest and bring to justice these fake agents who mislead the youth. Finally, young people, investigate well wherever you are flying to from reliable sources before you embark on that journey because emigration can make you as well as break you.