Gambia prohibits all forms of trafficking through its October 2007 Trafficking in Persons Act. The law prescribes penalties from 15 years’ to life imprisonment.
By Mustapha K Darboe
Binta Jagne* left The Gambia for Lebanon with promise of a good pay as a domestic worker. Excited of the prospects but little did she know her fate in the Middle East would change her life forever.
Jagne’s nightmare began one morning when she was driven to a hospital in a remote village called Hamra, four hours’ drive from Beirut, and forced into an operational theatre to donate her left kidney to the husband of her employer, a cancer patient.
Her consent was not to be sought because as her boss once told her, “I bought you”. The operation which left her with huge health complications that to date haunt her was done on March 1st, 2017.
She spent only 3 days in the remote and under-equipped hospital before she was taken back to work. The wound was fresh but she had to work anyway.
After six days after the operations, she ran away from her boss with the help of a nurse who was working at the hospital where she was operated on.
She stayed with the nurse between March 2017 to April 2018 while saving some money to return home. She could only get half the money required on her own.
Jagne arrived back in The Gambia on April 16, 2018 with the help of the nurse who paid for the rest of her air ticket. Even though she knew something had happened to her in the operation theater, there was no certainty her kidney was taken.
A test on July 3rd at Afrimed and on July 19th at Ahmadiyya Hospital both in 2018 confirmed her worst fears: her left kidney was taken.
“… My left kidney was donated to the old man,” she said, with splatters of tears in her eyes. The wound healed back at home, leaving a very grim scar on her stomach.
“Now I cannot walk for too long. I get tired easily…”
Jagne was a two-year political science student at the University of The Gambia when she was approached by a colleague who told her about a job opportunity in Lebanon. Being the only female child of her mother who is struggling to make ends meet, she jumped at it.
“I am the only female child of my mother and I desired to end her daily struggle for food,” she said, struggling to hold back her tears.
The contract was sold to Binta by a colleague who was also at the University and she was to be paid D 8,675 ($175 ) monthly.
She then left the country in July 2013, after signing the contract with her would-be ‘masters’. What was not known to her though was that by signing the vague contract, she was selling her freedom for 6 long years.
“The people to whom I was travelling brought my visa in two days…I was given a form to fill. That was a contract document that did not specify the nature of the job. It is only stated on the document that there are job opportunities like working at a restaurant and a hotel. It was a 3-year contract document,” she said.
“The contract stated that I will be deducted with D3675 ($75) every month for a period of six months to cover the visa and ticket cost spent on my travel. All I wanted at the time was to travel.”
Trafficking of young women to Middle East is based on deception. Over a dozen victims Kerr Fatou interviewed, none of them knew they were being sold until their arrival at the airports of their destinations.
Upon arrival, an immigration officer will stamp their passports and take them to a small room where they would meet lots of young women from other African countries.
This is true for almost all the victims who went to Kuwait, Lebanon and Oman. There, they would wait for their agents who would come and take them to a place identified as ‘The Office’.
The Office is the main agency responsible for the trafficking network. The Gambian middlemen collaborate with The Office or the foreign agents promising these women lucrative jobs in high-end hotels, bars and restaurants, fashion houses, beauty stores and hair-dressing salons in countries like Lebanon, Kuwait, Egypt and UAE.
It starts with a dubious work contract, mostly in Arabic, which always favours the employer in all aspects.
For a few other victims, there are no contracts at all— everything is verbal. And such victims would straight be picked up by their would-be masters upon arrival at the airports.
However, for all the women, there is one consistent warning: “your boss is always right. You cannot insult back or hit at him or her no matter what”.
“The waiting room is 3 by 3 meters for lot of girls from various countries,” said Jagne.
“I was thinking it is a normal job that I will be doing, like cleaning here but I would wake up at 5 a.m. I only rest at 12 a.m. And I wash cars which should not have been part of my work,” said Jainaba Ceesay, 25, a native of Sukuta.
Ceesay was taken to Lebanon in July 2016 and came back in 2017 July. Like her colleagues, she was promised a lucrative job as a maid, a claim she would later confirm to be false.
Like the lies that were told to them about their working conditions, some of these women are not paid. They have no say in their so-called contracts agreed with the agents.
“For a whole year, I was told that my money would be sent to my mum and when I called her, she said she did not receive anything. Meaning, I was working for a year for free,” said Jagne.
When Jagne persisted in asking, her boss said she only communicates to the agent who was back in the Gambia. Jagne said she was trafficked by one Mustapha Jarju but Jarju denied the charge.
“I do not traffic girls,” said Jarju, when contacted by Kerr Fatou.
However, Jagne added she is ready to testify against him in court though Jarju was never reported to the police or NAATIP for the alleged trafficking.
For Jainaba Ceesay, the only semblance of a contract that she saw was when she was taken to an immigration post, Maktab, where she signed a document written in Arabic.
“They took us to a place called Maktab where we signed the contract. I signed one year. I then saw my ‘Madam’ signing some papers and they put my fingerprints on it,” she said.
In over a dozen separate interviews, these women were consistent in their words that they had no limited time for work; for some, they work from 6a.m. to 12 a.m.
“They don’t like to see you resting. It is like if they have bought you,” said Isatou Sanyang, 24, a native of Brikama.
Sanyang has left the country on August 1st, 2018 but when she realized she was lied to, both about the nature and load of work she was given as well as the pay, she started working on her return. She was on a two-year contract but she spent only 27 days there.
Mariama Jobe, 26, a native of Manjai, has also been hoaxed into travelling to Cairo in Egypt with the promise of a better life only for her to realize she was sold to Nigerian agents by a Gambian.
A man she could only identify as Gibril Ceesay, an immigration officer, who allegedly trafficked her told her she was going to be paid $450 monthly.
Jobe, who left in December 2014 and came back in 2016, only came to know upon arrival in Egypt that the money spent on her ticket and visa was to be paid from her monthly pay.
“There… I was told I was going to be working as a maid. I was told $400 will be theirs (Agents’) and $50 will be mine. And I have to work for 12 months to pay the money they spent on me,” Jobe said.
Almost all people Kerr Fatou interviewed for this story have faced physical violence. The medium has exclusive access to a WhatsApp video recorded by a Gambian who has been burned all over her body by her boss.
Kaddy Jammeh, currently in Kuwait, shared with a Gambian from whom she was seeking help, almost all parts of her body burnt after her boss poured hot water over her.
The grim wounds all over the body of the girl are difficult to watch for a second.
“I had to wake up early in the morning to clean the house, bathroom and prepare breakfast. And the doctors have asked me not to put on a shirt,” she said, showing the wounds.
Another victim of an attack was Halimatou Dansireh, 30, a native of Bakau. Dansireh, an ex-restaurant worker on D1500 salary, left the country in December, 2015 and came back in 2017.
She worked in seven different houses in horrible conditions. Her boss, a woman, slapped her and put her mobile phone in water. Her crime was that she did not appear to be willingly ironing the clothes.
“She (her boss) would call me sometimes and ask me to bend over and serve as a bench. They would put hot food plate on my back. I can’t complain. She said she bought me. But for a second time, I deliberately shook and the plate fell. She took it and hit me on my back. I still carry that scar on me,” said Jagne.
Jagne still carries a huge scar on the hand, a wound she said was inflicted on her by her former boss.
And for some of the girls, their bosses would lock them when going to work. They fear that they may run away. Such was the fate of one Hawa Ceesay, a native of Tabokoto.
The mother of this three kids is the one who said that I will die in that Arabic county I was and look how I make her kid happy with me, is just like they are my kids cause their mother don’t sit at home she’s always on the streets no one knows what she’s doing there 24hrs pic.twitter.com/FTo6L3L092
— Network Of Girls Against Human Trafficking (@of_trafficking) October 14, 2018
In the stories of Gambian women trafficked to Middle East, sexual harassment is a common occurrence. Most of the women who spoke to Kerr Fatou said they were either sexually harassed or an attempt was made on them.
Jagne for example was sexually harassed two times at the Immigration office in Beirut. She spent one year six months at this particular place for fighting with her boss.
“I was sexually harassed two times by officers there. They would call me and tell me that I have a visitor and when I go, they force me into a room,” she said.
Other victims who endured similar fate were Tida Camara, 28, a native of Abuko, and Halimatou Dansireh, a native of Bakau.
The husband of Dansireh’s boss wanted to rape her after the wife left for a grocery store. “I ran into my room and locked the door,” she said. For Camara, she ran from her boss to seek refuge with an Ethiopian national she only knew as Muhammed. And in the middle of the night, he wanted to force himself on her.
She pushed him and ran onto the streets. She had to spend that night on the streets despite fear that she could be arrested and returned to her former boss who abused her.
Muhammed is an unofficial agent who helps run-away maids and use them, said Camara. On the day that follows she traveled to a town called Mahboula where she got work at a daycare.
She left the country quitting her D2500 job at Kanilai Family Farm on March 6, 2016 and came back in the same month in 2018. Her first destination was a town called Zahra in Kuwait.
Gambia is one of the countries in the world that does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, according to the United States Trafficking in Persons Report. The country also based on its prosecution success level, qualifies as a haven for traffickers.
Traffickers in the Gambia are in most cases arrested by the police and released without a single court appearance or never arrested at all. This is regardless of the fact that some were reported to either the police or National Agency Against Trafficking in Person (NAATIP).
The records for NAATIP in securing conviction have been intolerably low since its establishment.
The agency has secured only one conviction in 2017 though there were two ongoing prosecutions as at the end of the year, according to TIP. No conviction has been attained in 2018.
The 2018 TIP puts Gambia at Tier 2 watch-list. That position, which is the best The Gambia has got in over a decade, is for countries with worst records of trafficking that have shown little commitment to fighting it.
“As reported over the past five years, The Gambia is a source and destination country for women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking,” stated 2018 TIP report.
“Gambian women are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking in the Middle East, including Lebanon and Kuwait.”
In August 2018, newly arrived from Kuwait, Isatou Sanyang walked into Brikama police station to report the lady that allegedly trafficked her.
The alleged trafficker, one Fatou Danso, was arrested and jailed for three days and released. Her passports that were seized were all given back to her.
And when Isatou went back to the same station late October 2018 to take her own passport, she was told the case against Danso was dropped.
“They said we the victims who have complained against her said, she did not do anything bad to us,” Sanyang told Kerr Fatou.
However, the police spokesperson, Lamin Njie, claimed the lady is still being investigated for “trafficking in human”.
“We want to be ready with evidence before we put someone on trial…,” Njie claimed, though the victim has been told there was no case.
Curiously, if police had any interest in this case, NAATIP would have been informed to continue the investigation and build a case against Danso. In which case, Sanyang would have been notified to help in the investigation and testify later at the trial. None of this happened.
In fact, Kerr Fatou has reliably learned that Danso has left for Oman, thus confirming the false claims made by the police. However, Sanyang’s story is one too many. Yassin Ceesay returned home in 2017 and reported the Lebanese lady who “trafficked” her but nothing came out of it.
“I went to NAATIP and gave them my story and I brought them to the woman’s house… They picked her and interviewed her. They were telling me to go and come until I got tired. They made it a foolish case. I leave it to God,” Ceesay said, disappointed.
While for Mariama Jobe her allege “trafficker” could not be apprehended. She identified her allege trafficker as one Gibril Ceesay but NAATIP said they could not find anyone with that name in Gambia immigration.
“When we came back, in 2016, me and several others met with Tulie Jawara but they said they cannot identify Gibril. The case is still pending,” Jobe said.
Meanwhile, when contacted for clarification on November 9, the executive director of NAATIP, Tulai Jawara, said she was travelling and can only comment when she comes back.
She arrived in the country on November 17 and did not contact the reporter. Kerr Fatou however contacted her on November 19 but she said she does not have time and she will call the reporter when she has time, at an unspecified time in the future.
Perhaps emboldened by the open environment of impunity, trafficking is still very much alive.
This medium does not acquire enough data to identify the rise or fall pattern of the phenomenon, but it has acquired evidence of girls leaving as recent as October.
Kerr Fatou has secured contacts and details of traffickers who are still active and working in the open. One of them Fatou Sanneh, has taken a young woman, Kaddy Jallow, to Oman on October 28.
Jallow left with three others. She used the visa and tickets of Jallow to recruit one of Kerr Fatou’s sources interviewed for this story.
The source declined but the recruiter sent audio messages to show her how reliable her business is “unlike others”.
With the help of the local agent, Jallow and her colleagues took their flight from the Banjul International Airport.
Meanwhile, in these Middle Eastern countries, trafficking is commonplace. Over a dozen of the women who were trafficked separately to Lebanon, Kuwait and Oman have said they were processed by their immigration officers and taken to a waiting room at their various airports.
Their bosses seized their passports and authorities would arrest them if they run.
A Gambian diplomat highly familiar with Middle East and trafficking of young Gambian women told Kerr Fatou that the destination countries have what is called a ”Kafaala” system which equals to “bondage”.
Our source who does not want to be named has worked in at least one of the destination countries as a diplomat and traveled to several others.
“…Whereby the unscrupulous agents and their Gambian enablers would provide work visas to the innocent girls not knowing that they cannot legally work anywhere else without the consent of the original employer or agent,” said the source.
“So running away or absconding from work will not make much difference but only increases the legal woes and hurdles and the lengthy detentions as well as the final legal battles to regain freedom and repatriation.” Gambia does not have an embassy in any of these countries. It is the embassy in Saudi that helps, something that is often rare to come by.
Based on the findings made by Kerr Fatou, most of the women resort to going to jail for a period of time so that they can have official papers to be deported. For those who run from their bosses, violating the so-called contracts, they seek shelter with NGOs such as Caritas or ‘Salvation Army’.
“Violators of the regulations (so-called contract) on housemaids have to hide in one of the safe houses or seek refuge in shelters run by NGOs such as Caritas where conditions are no better,” our source said. Such was the fate of Oumie Drammeh, 24, a native of Lamin, Fatou Sowe, a native of Mariama Kunda and Halimatou Dansireh, native of Bakau.
They all had to go to jail called Jileeb in Kuwait for them to have any official document to be deported. Like their workplaces, the conditions in these jails are not any different.
“Everyone is stripped naked for inspection before going into this jail, even those girls seeing their period would have to remove their pads,” said Oumie. Her boss calls her Khadama, meaning maid in Arabic, because her name Oumie means mummy in their language.
“She would feel insulted to call someone she considers her slave mummy,” she said.
The intolerable low level of prosecution and conviction in the country is not only limited to weak policing on the issue or the ineffectiveness of NAATIP but also victims generally often end up showing disinterest in their own cases.
Several of the girls who have spoken to Kerr Fatou have shown no interest in prosecuting people who trafficked them. Some attribute their ordeal to God.
For some it is the ineffectiveness of the police and NAATIP that bored them, other victims who have had an encounter with NAATIP said they barely showed interest in their cases and for some, their traffickers are close relatives they cannot ‘put into trouble’ with the law.
“I do not want to put the woman in trouble. She is responsible for a big family and if she is taken to jail those people will suffer and I am fine now,” one of the victims who prefers anonymity said, after sharing her trafficker’s details with Kerr Fatou.
“It was Allah’s will what happened to me… I like to move on now,” said another who does not also want to be named.
Some of those contacted by Kerr Fatou declined to share their stories. However, part of the challenge is that, for a country that deals with trafficking at a rate like Gambia, almost the worst spot in the world according to the US TIP report, NAATIP that is responsible for fighting the menace is dedicated D150, 000 monthly subvention.
The institution which has only 9 staff according to the information available to this medium is under the Justice Ministry.
The D150, 000 takes care of its staff salary and administrative cost.
In fact, there are victims interviewed by Kerr Fatou who have never heard of NAATIP.
While a greater number of people trafficked to Middle Eastern or Persian countries are young women, young men too have fallen victims of the practice.
In October 2018, a Gambian national, Suwaibou Sissoho, was killed in Iran reportedly by human traffickers after they defrauded his family of $1200 (D67,200)
Sissoho, whose father confirmed his death to Kerr Fatou, left Gambia in June 2018 for Iran with the intention of proceeding to Turkey.
Another case is currently before the Brikama Magistrate Court over a similar issue involving Mafu Sanneh who claimed of being defrauded by D150,000 by traffickers.
Meanwhile, Gambian officials have announced couple of weeks ago that they have reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to enable 1000 Gambian youths to work in their tourism industry.
The proposed agreement aroused criticisms among the public given the reputation of Saudi as a trafficking destination.
In fact The Gambia has proven incapable and lacking the resources needed to protect its citizens from abuse in Saudi.
Gambia has previously made attempts to engage the Middle Eastern countries over issues relating to trafficking.
In 2014, a 4-member delegation comprising a legal expert from the Ministry of Justice, 2 police commissioners and one from Ministry of Foreign Affairs was sent to Beirut on a fact-finding mission.
The delegation led by Omar Gibril Sallah, now Gambia’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has visited the President of Manpower Recruitment Agencies, Director General of General Security as well as International Organization for Migration head office in Lebanon.
Based on the information available to Kerr Fatou, the head of the recruitment agencies gave the assurances that they will account for all arrivals from and departures to The Gambia of housemaids and that the office will coordinate with the concerned diplomatic or consular missions.
Our sources disclosed nothing has materialized in this regard. During the visit, the General Security Department of Lebanon promised to quickly expedite the legal and immigration procedures of detained Gambian domestic workers awaiting trial and or deportation.
In which case, the victims who do not have any passports, as they get taken away from them as soon as they arrive in Beirut, can be provided with travelling documents by the Gambian embassy in Riyadh.
However, that was also never fulfilled to date.
“So anyone going through this (trafficking) may have to endure a harrowing experience in a condition of filth, lack of basic sanitary items, exposure to contagious diseases and inadequate food,” said our source.
A comprehensive report on this fact finding mission was sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Gambia from the Gambian Embassy in Saudi.
Note: Names of all the victims who have spoken to Kerr Fatou for this article have been changed to protect their identities.