A portrait of Milly Namazzi, an Ugandan woman who travelled to Saudi Arabia for a housemaid job only to be murdered and mutilated by her Arab master in Egypt. (Gertrude Mutyaba / The Daily Monitor)

Arab State Human Trafficking

African Sex Trafficking

Sub-Saharan Africans are enslaved in areas beyond Arab North Africa. The form this slavery takes is human trafficking, mainly of young women. Lured by advertisements of legitimate jobs overseas, desperately poor women, often from Nigeria and Uganda, are trafficked to Arab countries for use as prostitutes and household maids. Many young women are tricked into believing that the oil-rich Arab world holds the answer to their economic worries and fall into the traffickers’ traps. As the Ugandan Observer reported in 2016, predatory “agents” — themselves often fellow African women — “use the internet to net young women looking for greener pastures but who end up being used as sex slaves and mistreated [housemaids].”

One woman’s lament to the Nigerian Vanguard sums up those of countless black women trafficked to places like the United Arab Emirates:

“My agent… told me she would get me a teaching job in Saudi Arabia but they brought us to Dubai.

“When we got to the airport, we stayed for 26 hours without food, waiting for the person to receive us.”…

In tears, she said “we came to a place where if you have nothing to do, you have to mortgage your body to eat.”

Some Nigerian government officials have said that the Afro-Arab trafficking problem has reached epidemic levels. As the Nigerian Ships & Ports blog reported in 2018,

The Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, has expressed dismay at the high rate of Nigerian girls trafficked to Saudi Arabia for forced labour.

The girls are trafficked to Saudi Arabia under the guise of getting jobs but instead end up being used for slave labour, tortured and sexually abused.…

He said, “The [government’s] report showed that this is a real scourge; it is just too pervasive now in our society.…”

[Julie Okah-Donli, a government minister tasked with combatting human trafficking] …said, “When [our] team visited Saudi Arabia, we met with more than 50 girls who were interviewed. We were told that there were many more girls who were stranded in various parts of Saudi Arabia.

“One of the victims was brought back and she is here to recount her ordeal.”

She said that there were a lot of Nigerian girls who were stranded in Saudi working under slave-like conditions in people’s homes.

According to her, most of them are raped, [and] most are made to work 18 hours out of 24 hours.

In 2020, Tolulope Akande-Sadipe, the chair of Nigeria’s parliamentary Committee on Diaspora Affairs, claimed that as many as 80,000 Nigerian women were being held as sex slaves across Lebanon, Mali, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E. She also accused pro-Arab President Buhari’s Ministry of Labor of complicity in the trafficking after Ministry officials refused four invitations to testify before her committee.

The number of Ugandan women held in such bondage is unknown, but similar media reports exist documenting their ordeals. As Reuters reported in 2016,

Nakintu (who requested her real name not be used) was advised to only keep her boarding pass to Kigali, Rwanda, in sight and hide her connecting pass to Dubai as immigration officials stop migrants who bypassed government recruiting agencies to seek employment.

But when Nakintu was met at Dubai airport by a Ugandan woman going by the name Jane Saad, she was told to hand over her passport and then informed she would be working as a sex escort.

“From the start I was terrified and tried to protest but she threatened us and said there were no alternatives as she had invested a lot of money in our trip,” Nakintu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Slowly we resigned and started following her instructions.”…

To meet the target income, Saad told her she had to entertain about 10 men in the first two days.

Though Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni announced the creation of a shelter in Dubai for Ugandan women trafficked there in 2021, it is doubtful that it will make much impact. For one thing, many such women are sent to prison for engaging in prostitution before they can enter a shelter, where some have died. And, though Museveni’s government has outlawed the practice of recruiting Ugandan women to work as maids in Saudi Arabia, many are still trafficked and enslaved there. In late 2021, Uganda was rocked by the story of Milly Namazzi, a 26-year-old woman who went to work as a maid in a Saudi household and was later trafficked to Egypt. There, her Arab employer murdered her and mutilated her body after refusing to let her go home once her contract had expired.

Black women from other countries like Sierra Leone have also reported being enslaved in Kuwait. As The Guardian documented in 2015,

In the basement of an old tower block near Kuwait City, recruitment agents brandish files full of healthy, work-ready domestic workers. “Choose the one you want,” says one agent with a smile. “I will give you a hundred days’ guarantee. If you don’t like her you can send her back.”

In Kuwait the domestic workers business is booming, with nearly 90% of Kuwaiti households employing at least one foreign maid.

Yet while dozens of recruitment agencies are pulling out the stops to attract potential employers — including parading women in front of potential employers who can take them home on the spot — they are also being accused of selling women and duping them into a life of domestic servitude.

Women from Sierra Leone formerly employed as domestic workers in private Kuwaiti households said they had been “sold like slaves” by recruitment agents to families in the Kuwaiti capital and then resold multiple times.…

Adama, 24, said that after being selected by a Kuwaiti family she was taken to their house and treated “like a slave”.

“You have to work 24 hours [with] no day off. You can never leave the house …You are not allowed to use mobile phones. These people are not good.”

She raises her skirt to reveal a deeply scarred leg. Adama claims her employer paid her nothing for her work and deliberately spilled hot oil on her while she was cooking. “I was crying, [but] she did not even look at me. I said, ‘Madam, why you do this to me?’ She told me that I’m a slave… I’m too slow, I’m not fast enough.”

A 2019 BBC investigation also found that the buying and selling of slaves in Arab countries has moved online, with Kuwaitis operating slave-trafficking networks through Instagram.

Ethiopian women, too, are trafficked, many to Egypt. In 2021, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants petitioned the Israeli Interior Ministry to grant asylum to 27 Ethiopian women trafficked to the Sinai in 2012. As The Jerusalem Post reported, some of the women had been “kidnapped between the ages of 13 and 20 and tortured in the Sinai’s sex-slave trade.”

The number of African women trafficked in this way across the Arab world is not known, but, given the estimates for Nigerians, possibly in the hundreds of thousands. Beyond rather cosmetic responses, like that of President Museveni, African governments have made little progress in halting this sprawling human atrocity. For its part, other than producing documentation, the U.S. State Department has also done similarly little.

Workers in the Katarah cultural heritage village in Doha, Qatar, in 2018. (Ramil Sitdikov / Sputnik via AP)

Gulf State Foreign Workers

Not only Africans are enslaved in the Arab world. For decades, the Gulf states have imported — some say trafficked — massive numbers of migrant laborers, mainly from South Asia, in order to build their infrastructure and perform menial tasks. The resulting ratios of natives to migrants in these relatively lightly-populated countries is astonishing. About a third (10.2 million) of Saudi Arabia’s population is foreign workers. Approximately 95% of Qatar’s labor force is foreign-born — more than two thirds of its population. And, as of 2015, more than 88% of the United Arab Emirates’ total population was made up of foreign-born laborers.

Such workers are savagely mistreated, underpaid, and are unable to voluntarily leave an abusive employer. In 2014, The Guardian labeled the conditions under which such workers live as “slave-like.” Nearly 1,000 workers died on Qatari government construction sites between 2012 and 2013 alone. According to Amnesty International, Qatar mustered tens of thousands of these workers to build the massive soccer stadium where it hosted the 2022 World Cup. Shortly before the games were held, the British human rights group Equidem released a report documenting how, as one of its authors told the media, Qatar’s treatment of its labor force amounts to “modern slavery.”

The situation of non-black foreign workers in the Gulf states is not only cruelly exploitative, but racist. Believed racially inferior, these South Asian populations are not considered full members of society and are excluded from the luxury to which the native Arabs are seemingly entitled. With most of the workforce non-Arab, the Arab population is comparatively idle and relies totally on foreigners to provide the necessary physical labor. As in Mauritania (see Mauritania report), this dynamic results in a rarely examined example of racial apartheid, with the two populations living relatively separate and not fraternizing beyond the giving and obeying of orders. In the case of the U.A.E., as a political science professor who taught in Dubai for five years told U.S. News and World Report in 2017, “Foreigners contribute to society but, as outsiders, are not part of that society.”

In 2020, Qatar reformed the infamous kafalah (“sponsorship”) laws which encourage foreign nationals to seek employment in Qatar and which sanction their abuse, but human rights organizations were skeptical that the reforms would be enforced. Saudi Arabia enacted similar labor law reform in 2021, but with similarly suspicious sincerity. The same kafalah system exists in the U.A.E., and though reforms have been enacted, they, too, appear cosmetic. The U.S. State Department has praised the Qatari labor reform, but has said and done little else.