Showing mixed feelings over her freedom and a tough time period spent during her job which was nothing short of a detainment in Oman, Rehana, a poor 40-year-old resident of Karachi's Korangi Town, lives in a small house where she is the lone breadwinner feeding her family.

International Labour Organisation (ILO), figures suggest that Rehana was among many of the 11.4 million women and girls suffering from forced labour across the world, a major number of whom are working in parts of the Middle East which is home to an estimated 25 million migrant workers.

The past few years have seen a steady increase in reporting on issues relating to human trafficking and forced labour in the region as well as a debate on and adoption of new laws against people smuggling. In the process, more attention has been drawn to problems that previously very rarely came in the limelight.

Cesar Guedes, who represents the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says that human trafficking and migrant smuggling “exploits and victimises millions around the world each year”.

Speaking at a recent regional meeting of the UNODC on the issue in Islamabad, Guedes added that Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar and Turkey should discuss how emerging routes of human trafficking and migrant smuggling can be tackled in order to eliminate human trafficking and migrant smuggling.

Many adult Pakistani men and women migrate voluntarily to the Gulf States but a number of them fall victim to fraudulent recruiting practices by illegal labour agents, coercion, non-payment of wages, withholding of passports and physical abuse. Rehana has passed through all these stages while working for her employer and her case is not a rarity.

Also read: Treaty signed to halt forced labour; Gulf states, Thailand oppose move

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has found that migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to ending up in circumstances where they are pushed into forced labour, mostly in domestic work and commercial sexual exploitation. Here, the impossibility of leaving the employer and limitations on freedom by the use or threat of penalty exist as ever-present possibilities.

Rehana was in the custody of her employer for 11 months and was compelled to forced labour during this time with her freedom of movement limited and her passport and other documentation retained before she was recovered by the Sarim Burney Trust.

Narrating her agony, Rehana lamented that since she could not contact her family and her husband realised the nature of the situation, he began approaching people and organisations working for the recovery of labourers who were working under duress and in virtual detention of their employers.

“My husband wrote an application to the Sarim Burney Trust regarding my detainment but after coming to know about my husband’s efforts to get me back through that organisation, my employer's behaviour became even more violent and he started beating me more often.”

“I sometimes sit with my children reminiscing about the terrible days of my life. I often recall with a shudder all those nights when I was weeping and praying for my freedom.”

The story of Z*, a tall, feeble woman in her mid-fifties went to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid, is not very different. The agreement that she signed for the purpose was bogus following which she had fled with a Pakistani man working in Saudi Arabia who brought Z as his mahram (blood relative) and later handed her over to a Saudi sheikh. She is currently in exile and still working against her will but the Sarim Burney Trust is making efforts to free her from detention.

More on this: Forced labour $150bn-a-year business

Guedes says it is important to continually “reiterate the need to fight” the global menace of people trafficking and migrant smuggling, adding that governments must develop a sense of urgency to find regional solutions as the issue affects the lives of millions. He said the UNODC would continue to support and strengthen the efforts of the Government of Pakistan in eliminating human trafficking and migrant smuggling.

The issue is taking on graver proportions with increasing concern from international experts who adopted a legally binding international protocol on forced labour in June this year at an annual conference of the ILO. The protocol calls for the tackling of forced labour worldwide and end what they called modern slavery. The experts also called to hold perpetrators accountable and believe an immediate implementation of the protocol is utterly crucial.

Generally, men and women from developing countries bear the brunt of such exploitation with the retention of passports and papers in the Middle East — a widespread, common practice of the employers in the region — forcing people into situations where they have to work without money as well as tolerate verbal insults and beatings from their employers.

The confiscation of passports and documents is a common feature in such exploitation with migrant labourers stacked like sardines in hovels and taken in jam packed buses to construction sites and made to work beyond prescribed hours and paid a pittance.

It is the lack of employment in their home countries that drives labourers from South and Southeast Asia towards the Middle East with the enormity of the problem so severe that the embassies of the countries from where these people come to the Gulf cannot handle it effectively.

ILO Director General Guy Ryder says “improved governance of labour migration” is imperative in combatting the problem. This, however, cannot be achieved without improved coordination on part of local, state and national governments carrying out searches and investigations and duly enforcing labour laws .

  • Z* is not a real name and has been changed to protect the woman's identity.*

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