Pains, anguish of Nigerian slave girls in Saudi Arabia
Thousands of Nigerian girls and young women who went to Saudi Arabia and Oman as domestic workers are living in slavelike conditions, and crying out daily for help. JULIANA FRANCIS captures the stories and suffering of these victims
At first glimpse of the video, one will be forgiven for thinking the lady, clad in hijab, is a Muslim. She starts talking and then your hasty conclusion shatters. There is despair in her voice as she narrates her sufferings and those of other Nigerian girls in Saudi Arabia. Her eyes look haunted.
As her voice cascades in rising and falling pitch, depicting her different emotions, the watchers are transported into her world of pains and fear. She explains that the hijab is a shroud to conceal her identity from her Saudi Arabian boss. She is one of the hundreds; if not thousands of Nigerian girls trafficked to Saudi Arabia under false pretence. She says: “I wish I can say my name; but I can’t!
That’s why I’m hiding my face. I don’t want them to see me. Please I want you (watchers) to pass this message to our African girls, especially Nigerians. Many of us are being trafficked to Saudi Arabia, to suffer. This is after we were promised a lucrative job. These bad agents that are in wolf-clothing pretend to be sheep. They pretend to be pastors; they traffic our girls to Saudi Arabia to die!”
Giving an insight into the story of her life, she discloses that she was promised a work in a company, which turned out to be a sham. She was ushered into domestic servitude robe and forced to serve 14 people. The lady, who describes herself as a ‘prisoner,’ adds: “You wake up about 7a.m. and work till midnight without rest and there are no offdays. Nobody cares whether you have eaten or not.”
Choking on emotions, she adds: “Many of our girls are dead and many others missing. Many work without being paid their salaries and when they ask, they are killed. Ladies run away because of sexual harassment. Those that agreed to such advances are often killed by the men’s wives when they find out. Please pass this message; these agents must be stopped.
When you’re trafficked, you’re expected to finish your contract before leaving. Sometimes, if you are through with the contract, they still will not allow you to leave. Left to the agents trafficking girls, they will not quit because of the easy money involved in the business.” She concludes in a bleak note: “I’m so tired. I will like to return home. But I can’t! They have seized my passport.”
Several of these sorts of videos have found their ways into the internet, with the victims, frantically looking for ways to reach out to the Nigerian authority. These videos are often forwarded to journalists known to specialise in reporting human trafficking issues.
Our reporter belongs to that category. Aside from the first video, another video was sent to our reporter. The second video shows a Saudi Arabian man, trying to coerce a Nigerian girl to have sex with him. It was clear that the man was in the habit of sneaking into the girl’s room to rape her. Before he entered the room, she had already set her camera rolling. She lies on the mattress, which was on the floor of the room, pretends to be asleep.
The Arab man, wearing a turban, with a wrap falling from his head down to his shoulders, wakes her and starts fondling her fully clothed body, unerringly making for her breasts. She repeatedly frowns to show her displeasure, but the man ignores her. When she turns her back on him, he goes after her trousers, trying to pull it off. She resists by doing nothing, only ensuring that he finds it tough to achieve his quest. Spent, he whispers into her ears and she vigorously nods. With a great deal of reluctance, he shambles out of the room.
She gets up from the mattress, glares at the door the man just walks through and stops the rolling camera. The third video sent to our reporter shows a Yoruba-speaking girl crying in a broken-hearted manner, begging an unknown, “Brother Tope” to come and take her away from Saudi Arabia or she will die. The girl has a white wrap tied sarong fashion over her chest.
She looks pale and sickly. She explains that she was forced to do chores meant for four servants. She says although she was ill, she was still expected to work. Sniffing as tears stream down her cheeks, she wails: “Help me! Remember that my children are fatherless; don’t allow me to become a corpse here.
Have mercy on me. If I had known, I wouldn’t have embarked on this journey. I have never suffered like this before, not in Nigeria. I accept that I got myself into this predicament. Don’t let me to die here, have pity on my children.”
The brave Nigerian girl called Chiamaka
Another victim, Chiamaka, was able to reach out to an activist, Mr. Dede Uzor Uzor, of the Campaign for Democracy (CD) and Human Rights through a soldier, Philip, via social media, while still in domestic servitude at Saudi Arabia. Uzor linked Chiamaka to our reporter and they both started chatting via Facebook messenger on September 2, 2018.
The correspondences spanned weeks with Chiamaka relating her every day suffering. Eventually our reporter wrote a letter to the Director- General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP), Dame Julie Okah-Donli, to alert the agency of Chiamaka’s and other Nigerian girls’ suffering in Saudi Arabia.
Chiamaka says she was tricked and trafficked by a woman called Madam Deborah Afelumo, whom she initially thought God brought her way to be her ‘Guardian Angel’. She says: “The agreement was that we were going to Saudi Arabia to work as house helps.
Deborah told us that our employers would provide everything we needed, including clothes, feeding, body cream, soap, shoes, accommodation, medicine and freedom! She told us that each household, where we were going, had between three to five maids, with each scheduled to handle a different chore.”
When the excited girls got to Saudi Arabia, they were shocked to discover that Deborah had been feeding them pack of lies. Chiamaka says: “I’m working with a family of 16 people, living inside a building with 20 rooms. I have to clean all the rooms, wash clothes, cook and serve everyone. I cook more than six times in a day.
The earliest I have gone to bed was 3a.m. Sometimes, you might not be lucky to get a chance to go to bed because you work until morning. Most times, after cooking, I will not be allowed to eat the food.”
According to her, they were 13 girls trafficked from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia by Deborah. She also says that Deborah asked them to pay her 750 riyal (about N72,579.67) per month for eight months. The woman allegedly told them that the money was for expenses spent on passports, visas and flight tickets.
Some of those alleged to have been trafficked by Deborah are: Onyinye, Favour, Mercy, Ruth, Chinonso, Serena, Tracy, Lydia, Blessing, Peace, Motunrayo and Monsurat. Chiamaka says: “It was when we got to Saudi Arabia that our employers told us that they had already paid Deborah for all the travel documents.
Our employers also paid her $1,500 per person, which was her commission as an agent. Some of these ladies are facing sexual harassment with their madams’ sons and husbands. Some of our girls are even missing.”
The Saudi Arabia human trafficking ring
While trying to explain how the Saudi Arabia trafficking ring works, Chiamaka says there are different companies which recruit maids through agents in Nigeria. The lady, who is in her early twenties, describes herself as an orphan. She says she trusted Deborah too much. She adds: “I trusted Mrs. Deborah. I put all my trust in her. I told her all my pains and sufferings, right from my childhood. I told her how I lost my mother and my spiritual mother.”
How Chiamaka was allegedly trafficked
At this point, Chiamaka explains that her mother died when she was just seven-year-old. The mother died in the throes of labour. She says that her mother, during pregnancy, was very sickly, thus she had to take care of the woman, even though she was just seven. She says her father, who had two wives, including her mother, for reasons she couldn’t fathom, never had time for her mom, her siblings and her.
When her mother died, her stepmom naturally took over the care of Chiamaka and her siblings. Chiamaka alleges that her stepmom, who ensured that her children were enrolled in school, refused to send her to school. One day, she ran away from home.
She was rescued by a rich Yoruba woman, who started caring for her. She was with the woman until the woman died. She adds: “My father and stepmom refused to care for my mom. Even at my young age, I was the one preparing food for mom. I also used to bathe her. I did everything for her. She died and life became tougher for my siblings and I. God then sent me a helper, who sent me to school.
My helper died in 2016. She was a very rich woman.” Chiamaka’s life was characterised with movement from one place to another, seeking jobs, quitting jobs and sleeping wherever she found shelter.
According to her, one day, she ran into a cousin, who told her about travelling to Saudi Arabia to work for a huge salary. Chiamaka says she was taken to the Domestic Help Company, located at Lekki, Lagos, where she met Deborah. She poured her heart out to Deborah, who is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the company. She talked about her sufferings and pains. Deborah promised to facilitate Chiamaka’s journey to Saudi Arabia. “Mrs Deborah must have known everything about Saudi Arabia, yet she chose to send me here. She sold me for two years to be slave.
They paid her for my ‘head,’” says Chiamaka. According to her, the most annoying thing about going to Saudi Arabia, to discover that she had been deceived, was in being employed to care for a physically-challenged girl, who is older than her.
“Lifting and carrying her around almost broke my back.” She further discloses that one of the trafficked girls, Tracy, was missing. Chiamaka says: “Mrs. Deborah got me a passport and paid for my visa and ticket. She said that I would have to refund her after I must have started collecting salary as a maid in Saudi.” When Chiamaka got to Saudi Arabia, she discovered that everything Deborah told her were lies. She notes: “When I landed at Saudi Arabia, they collected my passport. There were people waiting for me at the airport; they were agents working with Deborah.”
Disillusionment in Saudi Arabia
Chiamaka explains that when the suffering was much, she got across to Deborah, insisting she wanted to leave Saudi Arabia. When Deborah allegedly didn’t respond, she became desperate and soon located a Nigerian soldier, named Philip via social media. Philip got in touch with the CEO of Campaign for Democracy (CD).
The CEO got in touch with our reporter. On September 8, our reporter emailed Okah-Donli, giving details of Chiamaka and where the office of Deborah is located. “Your mail acknowledged with thanks.
Action will begin on this immediately,” Okah-Donli responded. NAPTIP was already investigating Deborah, when Chiamaka with the help of Philip, returned to Nigeria. Asked how she managed to elude her captors, Chiamaka explains that Philip repeatedly called the employment agency in Saudi Arabia, threatening and stressing that the Nigerian government wanted Chiamaka back in Nigeria pronto.
The company allegedly balked and on September 23, Chiamaka landed in Nigeria. Our reporter encouraged her to go to NAPTIP’s office to tell her story and assist them to build a case against Deborah. Chiamaka says those of them in Saudi Arabia had never heard of NAPTIP until she got in touch with the reporter, who educated her about the agency.
She says: “I just want this trafficking of Nigerian ladies to stop. I’m going to do everything to help. I also want other girls still in Saudi Arabia to be rescued. Many of our girls are dying there. Their madams kill them. Many aged Hausa women are there. They were trafficked by their own Hausa men.”
Operatives of NAPTIP arrest Deborah
After weeks of keeping dogged surveillance on Deborah’s office, she was eventually traced to her residence in Lekki and arrested on October 15, 2018. After a series
of interrogation, she was given administrative bail and given date to report to the agency’s office. Deborah was asked through her father to provide her Android phone for forensic analysis and her Bank Verification Number (BVN) on her next appointment day.
Her father was handed this instruction when he took her on bail and stood as her surety. The operatives wanted to know the sources, through which money had been going into her different accounts. They were building a case against her.
The bloody mensuration pad attack
On November 7, 2018, our reporter went to NAPTIP’s office, Lagos Zone, at Ikeja. That was the day Deborah was expected to report with her phone and BVN. About 4p.m. she walked into the Zonal Commander’s office, dressed in jeans, topped with a blouse which has spaghetti straps. Things became interesting after Deborah insisted that her father never told her that NAPTIP asked her to come with those items.
NAPTIP Lagos Zonal Commander, Daniel Atokolo, told her calmly that since she didn’t bring the items, she would have to be detained. Immediately she heard that, she jumped off her seat, sat on the floor of the office and cried: “I cannot be detained. I will kill myself if I’m detained.
Chiamaka who you claimed I trafficked has never suffered the way I have been suffering since this case started. I’m suffering here, she is enjoying in Saudi Arabia. I don’t even have money to buy anything anymore. I had to borrow transport fare to come here today. I can no longer take care of my parents. I’m having my menstrual flow, yet I can’t buy pad. No! I cannot be detained! I will kill myself.”
As Deborah was screaming, her mother, who was outside, heard her voice and like a hurricane, pushed detectives standing at the door out of her way and barged into the office. She looked like an Avenging Angel. Seeing her daughter on the floor, lamenting, she joined, shrieking: “Detain who? Never!
We will all die here! You can’t detain my daughter. She has suffered enough! We’re both having our menstrual flow, yet we can’t buy pads.”
Thereafter, Deborah’s mother shocked NAPTIP officials to their bone marrows when she pulled off her panties, dragged out her pad covered in blood and started waving it all over the office, sprinkling blood everywhere.
As soon as Atokolo noticed the woman’s attempt to pull off her panties, he covered his eyes with his two hands, turned away and kept shouting, “Jesus! Jesus! Stop it! Madam, stop it!”
NAPTIP detectives tried to bundle the old woman out of the office, but she refused to budge. Rather, she struggled to unzip her gown, so that she would stand stark naked. This time around, the operatives were prepared, she was clad in iron hold.
When the drama was beginning to die down, a worker with NAPTIP entered with mop to wipe the bloodstains. Many speculated diabolical intentions to twist the case; such adventures were no longer new to operatives of NAPTIP.
Many of them had been beaten and attacked with charms in the course of doing their jobs. Atokolo reluctantly opened his eyes and stared at mother and daughter. “I sanctified and anointed this office with the blood of Jesus. Whatever is your intention madam, it will not work! Deborah, I shall not detain you, but not because of the drama you and your mother displayed here today.
We want to give you another chance to go and get your phone and other items we requested,” he says When the mother heard that, she smirked. On December 10, our correspondent paid another visit to NAPTIP office. She found out that Deborah had tendered the items required by NAPTIP for further investigations. Indeed, our correspondent discovered that First Bank, which Deborah banks with, has given NAPTIP Bankers’ Order to begin the forensic investigation.
On December 13, Deborah reported again at NAPTIP. The reporter approached and introduced herself. The reporter told her about Chiamaka’s allegations and the need to hear from her. Operatives of NAPTIP listened as Deborah shared another version of her story with the reporter. Her story left NAPTIP operatives in a dilemma. Deborah paints Chiamaka as manipulative and cunning. She alleges that Chiamaka lied against her.
After hearing fresh angles from Deborah, NAPTIP operatives have to re-evaluate their investigations. “I’ve never trafficked anyone in my life,” says Deborah Narrating her story amidst tears, Deborah says: “Sometimes in 2017, Chiamaka walked into my office at Lekki.
My company sources domestic help for clients. She told me that she needed a job, that her mom was late and that her stepmom was mean to her and her siblings. “I was drawn to Chiamaka because she speaks very well, even with British accent. She is intelligent. I was impressed, especially since her Curriculum Vitae shows she was just a secondary school certificate holder.
It was when I asked where she learnt to speak in such a way, that she replied that she and her siblings were born in the United Kingdom (UK). “When she told me the story of how her mom died and how her stepmom maltreated her and her siblings, I felt sorry for her. I desperately wanted to assist her, especially when I discovered that she was into prostitution. Yes, she used to stripdance in a club on Victoria Island. I didn’t like that life for any lady.
“The challenge was that Chiamaka wanted an out of residence job, while most of our clients wanted live-in house helps. She left. I later told her story to my mom and brother. They all felt sorry for her. My mom said that it might be possible for Chiamaka to go to UK Embassy for visa that she could be given, since she was a citizen.
“My mom and brother went to my office and searched out her CV, but there was no phone number. They got her number through the register she signed at the security post. All visitors must sign before entering the premises. She, however, said that she was not interested in returning to the UK. “Before then, a company in Saudi Arabia had contacted me.
The contract was for me to help them get domestic helps for a commission. One of the girls I sent to Saudi Arabia didn’t tell me that she had sight problem. It was when she got there that her employer discovered. She was to be sent back to Nigeria; I thought I could help Chiamaka by using her as a replacement for that girl. Yes, Chiamaka was a replacement. “I discussed the job with Chiamaka; I told her it was house help. She accepted. Before sending these girls out, I used to run medical tests on them.
The test showed that Chiamaka was pregnant. By then I had already spent money on passport and other things for her. I was angry when I got the test result. “Even when I showed her the result, she denied it. She later told two of my girls that she was truly pregnant, but had taken some concoctions to terminate it. She didn’t know the concoctions didn’t work. Everything she told those girls, they reported to me.
She later came with another result, which showed she tested negative to pregnancy test. I was confused. I sent her to my personal hospital for another test and it was negative. My girls told me that Chiamaka had had an abortion.”
Deborah discloses that for each of the girls sent to Saudi Arabia, she spent N350,000 for their documentations. She explains that the firm, which she deals with in Saudi Arabia, pays $300 per girl, while an employer who wants any of the girls, pays unknown sum of money to the firm.
Thus, the human trafficking business continues to boom. She says: “$300 is for recruitment. In fact, these girls are the first batch. I have not really made money from them. I have collected only $300 for six people.” Deborah adds: “Chiamaka claimed that one of the girls is missing, she’s lying. Nobody is missing.”
Asked if she has been to Saudi Arabia, to know what the girls are really going through, Deborah replies: “I have never been there. But when Chiamaka started complaining of the work, insisting she wanted to return, I asked other girls if they also wanted to return to Nigeria, they said no. In fact, what they said was, ‘Work is hard, enjoyment plenty.’ When Chiamaka insisted that she wanted to leave, I started the processing immediately.
I asked the firm to let her go.” Deborah, a graduate, says: “Among all the girls, she’s the only one that used to call to check up on me. I so much liked her. She changed in September and became hostile. She accused me of trafficking and selling her. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I have heard of human trafficking, but I had always thought it was something that had to do with prostitution.
In fact, when I was invited by NAPTIP, I asked what NAPTIP was. I have never heard of it. The change in Chiamaka was too sudden, I started asking other girls questions. I was told that she stole her employer’s 500,000 riyal and gold bracelets and since then started having issues with them. It was trust issue.
She became uncomfortable and demanded that she wanted to return home.” After listening to Deborah’s narration, Atokolo told her that there was no ignorance in law.
Human trafficking and security agents
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, speaking on the trafficking of Nigerian girls to the Middle East, noted that further investigations would have to be carried out concerning the issue. “We want to tackle it at source. Clearly, there is an issue. Young girls especially, who are going to Saudi Arabia to do unskilled work is a problem and we want to tackle that.
So, the first thing we are going to do is that we are going to send a team to Saudi Arabia; to ascertain the facts and the circumstances. We are going to meet with the Ministry of Labour and have NAPTIP involved in this process of giving licences, agreement or whatever, for these girls to obtain visas and we are also going to engage with the Saudi Arabia Embassy here on this question,” he says.
The DG of NAPTIP, Dame Julie Okah-Donli, bemoaned mass recruitment of Nigerians to Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries. “The new dimension now, which is giving all of us serious headache, is this mass recruitment to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Dubai, Egypt, and so on, by agents, under the guise of providing employment as househelps and nurses to Saudi Arabian nationals.
“There are a lot of girls going to Saudi Arabia and the reports we hear are not pleasant. A lot of them are stranded there,” says Okah-Donli.
According to her, there is need to synergise and reduce the influx. She urges the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to also beam their searchlight on Mali and other West African countries where Nigerians are stranded in their numbers, a lot of them victims of human trafficking and irregular migration.
The NAPTIP boss also enjoins IOM to come to the rescue of Nigerians trapped in exploitative labour conditions in Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other Middle East countries. Filled with emotions, she says: “Thousands of Nigerian women who went to Saudi Arabia and Oman under the guise of domestic workers are living in slave-like conditions, and they cry out daily for help.”