Erbil at the price of Dubai; Peregraf reveals the details on the trafficking of foreign workers in Kurdistan
Peregraf- Diman Burhan
She had not yet turned 18 when smugglers fraudulently increased her age and put her on a plane with a dream of reaching the paradise of Dubai. Instead, Alisha landed in Erbil; marking the beginning of her private hell.
Throughout her painful life, in exile and far from her friends and family, she has faced various kinds of physical and psychological violence in different cities.
Alisha Ray is a pseudonym for a dark-skinned girl of medium height from Patan City in Nepal. The story of her hardships began when her parents divorced. Two years later, she ended up with a stepfather who separated her from her mother’s love.
“My new father did not allow me to spend time with my mother. He told me: ‘You are a young girl, you can work and earn a living.’” Alisha was 17 then.
She spent some time in a salon in Nepal until she fell into the trap of the “smugglers and mafias.”
“I was three months away from turning 18. The smugglers fraudulently added three months to my age so I could work. They deceived me and they told me: ‘We will take you to a salon in Dubai where your life will completely change.’ But when I landed, I realized that it was in Erbil, not Dubai.” Alisha told Peregraf.
She was forced to accept the reality. For two years while she awaited the finalization of her work contract, she worked in a hotel in Ainkawa town where she ironed bedsheets and employee uniforms.
Once again, she was deceived by the smugglers. “They promised to take me to Dubai and help me realize my heavenly dream, but it was not heaven; it was hell.”
“We were deceived and sold in Baghdad.”
Alisha and several other Nepali, Indonesian, Indian, and Persian women were taken to a hotel in Baghdad to be exchanged. This was how it started in Nepal when she was misled and brought by a company to Iraq.
More than 160 companies are permitted to import foreign workers to the Kurdistan Region.
Muhammad Ezad owns one of these companies, Balsa, based in Erbil. The company has been importing foreign workers for nine years and has obtained visas for six thousand workers, from domestic workers to company and industry laborers.
He admitted that workers are brought to the Kurdistan Region by way of deception. “They tell the workers there that they will be paid good salaries but when they come here, they see a different reality,” Ezad said.
Peregraf’s investigation showed that trafficking in foreign labor continues even after the workers reach Iraq. They are sent to locations in central and southern Iraq to be traded there.
“The trade operates under the guise of tourism. [The workers] are sent from the Kurdistan Region to central and southern Iraq because they are worth more there,” Ezad told Peregraf.
He mentioned that the contract for an Indonesian worker is worth up to 6,000 USD in the Kurdistan Region, but it approaches 9,000 USD in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
Currently the Ministry of the Interior has stopped granting visas to foreign workers.
Most of the workers brought to the Kurdistan Region are citizens from Asian and African countries.
The owner of Balsa Company says that Indonesian workers are in high demand because they are Muslims and have fewer problems with the company and employers. Demand is lowest for African workers, particularly Ghanaian laborers, because they cause “the most problems,” without elaborating what kind of “problems” they cause.
Concerning the case of an African female worker, he said: “The owner of the house tried to rape her, but we started an investigation when we found out about it. Fortunately, according to the medical reports, it was only an attempt. The contract was terminated, she was compensated, and she was returned to her country at her request.”
Many workers who face violence in the Kurdistan Region cannot return to their countries of origin, like Alisha who experienced a variety of hardships in Baghdad.
“Because of my age and beauty, I was sold into prostitution in Baghdad for 8,000 USD,” said Alisha.
She became pregnant twice and terminated both pregnancies.
“In the first case, I was told to run up a flight of stairs. I miscarried after two days; [the fetus] was very small.” When she discovered she was pregnant the second time, she told her employers she had a doctor’s appointment and enlisted a man’s help to flee from Baghdad.
In the last three months of her second pregnancy, a midwife in Erbil performed an abortion.
Peregraf was able to find and contact Alisha with the help of the midwife. Notwithstanding several visits to the Ministry of the Interior, it was not cooperative in putting us into contact with foreign workers facing violence.
No one, including KRG, denies the existence of human trafficking and violence against foreign workers.
Arian Ahmed, Spokesperson for the KRG Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, told Peregraf: “A small number of foreign workers are imported through the companies registered by us. We allow only as many [workers] as are needed and we insure them. The larger portion comes through the Ministry of Interior or with tourism visas, allegedly to visit Jordan and other countries, but they find themselves in the Kurdistan Region.”
According to Ahmed, most of those that arrive in violation of his ministry’s regulations face problems, including physical violence and sexual abuse.
“Now some of the workers are traded like slaves and are sold in the cities of central and southern Iraq. They are being exchanged in the black market,” said Ahmad.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has requested that the Presidency of the Council of Ministers prevent violations of foreign workers’ rights as well as their importation in violation of the regulations.
According to Iraqi law, the importation of foreign laborers must go through several steps. Workers’ rights are to be respected and observed. But in the Kurdistan Region, there is no law specific to foreign labor.
Mohammad Hazhar, Secretary of the Foreign Workers Culture and Defense Organization, told Peregraf: “Most of the victims are female. 75% of the complaints filed with our organization are from women and 25% are from men.”
The organization has been working on cases concerning violations of the rights of foreign workers and has dozens of offices in cities throughout Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.
“If the cases are not resolved, they are sent to the Directorate to Combat Human Trafficking in the Ministry of Interior. But we do not file complaints in court because they are not dealt there as they should be.”
Mohammad Hazhar says that workers should be respected and their rights observed according to Iraqi labor law. However, the law is violated from the beginning when the workers are promised jobs in Dubai and other countries but are brought to the Kurdistan Region.
In addition to physical violence, foreign workers face many other violations such as the revocation of their passports and the withholding of pay.
“This year in August, a Ghanaian girl was raped and she tried to commit suicide. We caught her in time and stopped her. We solved her problem and sent her back to her country.”
Hazhar claims that his organization’s committees have managed to return some of the girls sold in Baghdad to Kurdistan. “Most of those sold in Baghdad were women and were sold into prostitution for 8,000 USD. The men were sold for 4,000 USD for hard labor. We have managed to return five of those women [to the Kurdistan Region].”
Alisha Ray was one of the women who fled Baghdad and returned Erbil.
After escaping Baghdad and terminating her second pregnancy, Alisha started a new job at a café in Erbil. “Here [in Erbil], people are not sexually abusive and it is much safer than Baghdad. What I went through in Baghdad was nothing short of being buried alive.” Alisha is now 22 years old.
According to unofficial data, approximately 30,000 foreign workers work in the Kurdistan Region.
Tavga Omer, Director-General of the Legal Office of Independent Human Rights Commission in the Kurdistan Region, told Peregraf: “Foreign workers face many kinds of violence, both from the companies that import them and from their employers and landlords.”
One of the violations is the companies’ use of deceptive practices to recruit employees. As Tavga explains, most of the workers had not even heard of Kurdistan, but they were brought to the region, allegedly en route to Turkey and other countries.
“It means that they have been trafficked right from the start. And some of them are smuggled into other Iraqi cities and are sold for a second time. This has happened in the past and it is still happening.”
She added that legal action has been taken against some companies and some of their licenses have been revoked.
Other violations include: working too many hours, delaying or withholding salaries, physical violence, insults, improper behavior, and failure to provide daily necessities.
“Victims are of both sexes, but mostly women, especially in cases of sexual abuse,” says Omer. She adds that a law dedicated to protecting foreign workers’ rights is needed to reform the process of granting work visas.
This year, no data have been published with regards to violations of foreign workers’ rights. According to the Kurdistan Region Police data for 2018 and 2019, 171 workers died in those two years. 15 of them were killed and 11 women committed suicide.
The violations are also committed against men. Male workers mostly report violations of their rights by their employers, including insults and disrespect.
“Men may also face sexual abuse. I have seen two cases in Kurdistan Region and Iraq. But they are men and can reclaim their rights and place in the world, unlike us women whose reputations are damaged and are seen as prostitutes,” Alisha Ray said.
This investigative report was written by Diman Burhan for Peregraf as part of the Intensive Journalism Workshop funded by the German Foreign Office.