Saudi Arabia’s Horrific Human Trafficking Records Question Travellers’ Safety

It is well known that Saudi Arabia’s poor human trafficking records remained largely under veil until social media stories garnered the attention of international human rights groups. Increasing vulnerability of foreign migrant workers in the country has aggravated problems of forced prostitution and sex tourism.

Undocumented visitors entering the country from its southwestern border often end up as just another horrific story in Saudi’s human trafficking records. These visitors mostly comprise of vulnerable Somali, Yemeni or Ethiopian workers who somehow escaped one hell hole with little knowledge of entering another!

Saudi’s human trafficking records can be assessed by delving deeper into how Yemeni children are smuggled to Saudi by employers who promise them shelter, food and handsome wages. In the words of the leader of Yemen’s popular Houthi Ansarullah movement — Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, various criminal gangs fool these children into becoming innocent victims of forced labour, sexual exploitation and beggary.

While the country has a few shelters and outreach programs wherein these children can report (if they manage to escape), the coronavirus pandemic has shut many of them. In most cases, victims fall prey to online human traffickers who trick them unattended. As internet consumption has significantly increased amidst global Covid lockdowns, traffickers easily find their prey in young adolescents.

However, easy access to social media has also helped Saudi’s victims to reach out for help. A Cambodian Muslim woman who is captivated in Saudi Arabia recently posted a video clip on Facebook to share her traumatic experiences. The woman, named Ly Rohimas explained how she was cheated by a broker and sent to Saudi. Speaking of her existing conditions she added, “About my living condition…[the] house owner beats me almost every day, but I cannot get help from anyone. The house owner took away all of my personal documents. I have not received any salary or allowance. Moreover, I am prohibited from going out to meet anyone”.

One reason why Saudi Arabia’s human trafficking records often go unnoticed is the existence of ‘kafala system’, which ties domestic workers to their sponsors. Most sponsors torture workers by forcing them to survive in inhumane conditions and also confiscate their passports. The few lucky ones who manage to escape their sponsors often end up into prostitution or die in suspicious circumstances.

To improve its poor human trafficking records, Saudi declared up to 15 years of imprisonment and a fine of up to a million riyals in 2009. Yet law proved to be insufficient as reality continues to present a rise in human trafficking cases. According to the Coordinator of Migrant Rights research centre -Rima Kalush who reports migrant abuses in Gulf nations, human trafficking victims rarely report to the police. Unreported cases and incomplete investigations further hinder judicial support thereby aggravating human trafficking issues in the region.

Saudi’s laws that are meant to protect human trafficking victims have some loopholes. Even if some foreign domestic worker wishes to file a complaint, the law mandates the presence of a local person. Since most victims are mistreated by the locals, they fail to file legal complaints due to absence of a supporter. This further intensifies their mental trauma, ultimately pushing them to the brink of depression.

Evidently, Saudi needs to rework upon its poor human trafficking records more speedily amidst the pandemic. Instead of promoting itself as a tourist destination amongst women travellers, it should rather focus on pulling innocent lives out of the vicious circle of human trafficking!

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