By Sanna Camara
In May 2010, The Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, and Qatar’s emir sheikh, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, discussed “ties of cooperation” between the two countries at the Al Wajbah Palace. This discussion resulted in an agreement between their countries, signed by The Gambia’s trade minister, Abdou Kolley, and Qatar’s social affairs minister and acting minister of labor, Nasser bin Abdullah al-Hemaidi.
Having been drawn up in Doha that spring during an official visit by Jammeh, the agreement, Kolley told members of the National Assembly, would “enable Qatari companies and employers that want to employ Gambian workers to make their request through their government,” which would arrange all administrative papers and workers’ departures to Qatar. On June 23, 2010, the assembly unanimously approved the labor agreement.
At the time, the president’s brother, Ansumana Jammeh, served as Gambia’s Ambassador to Qatar and was officially involved in facilitating the employment transactions of Gambian youths for Qatar, as well as Dubai. The offices of the KG International, the president’s corporate establishment that operates a chain of businesses in Banjul, was tasked with supervising employment transactions by the state.
Under such arrangements, hundreds of young, job-seeking Gambians were sent to Qatar to work. However, official cooperation was suspended once it was discovered that workers did not possess the skills Qatari and Emerati companies sought, leaving many without work and seeking jobs at any cost. Local agents saw their misfortunes as a “great opportunity” and began to recruit them for informal work. Now lacking legal or labor safeguards, these workers were subject to severe exploitation.
“Some of the workers were sexually abused by various employers, senior staff, and host family members,” a source who had witnessed the sordid experiences of Gambian workers in Qatar told Gambia Beat in July 2015. In addition to sexual abuse and exploitation, the “housing [and] contractual conditions [of workers], including numbers of hours of work, did not respect the rights of our brothers and sisters.”
Enter private companies and agents
To date, the trafficking industry has expanded to other countries, such as Lebanon, Kuwait, and Egypt. These countries have become popular destinations as their demand for employees has skyrocketed. Private agencies and agents have made a business out of trafficking Gambians by promising better pay, work, housing conditions, protections, and quality of life.
It is an open secret that despite the lack of formal agreements, employment opportunities are still available for Gambians in the Middle East. Even though the government no longer sends people to work in Qatar, Gambian boys and girls still come in droves seeking employment. The hundreds of young people graduating from school jobless, along with dropouts, see it as an opportunity—especially young female workers as the demand for maids and servants is high.
Imprisoned in their employers’ homes
Khaled Beydoun, a half-Lebanese, Washington, D.C.-based attorney and author, ardently criticizes the abuses of foreign servant workers in Lebanon—stressing the contractual misrepresentations, glamorous lifestyles, and exaggerated salaries promised to workers prior to arrival.
“A network of legal and customary practices binds maids to their work immediately upon arrival,” Beydoun wrote. It is common practice for employers to seize the worker’s legal documents, threaten with various punishments, and work them to physical exhaustion to prevent them from escaping. “Domestic workers are often stripped of their freedom of movement. Many are virtually imprisoned in their employers’ homes. Furthermore, a standard $3,000 penalty is levied if the domestic worker leaves the position before the contract expires, or if she runs,” he added.
A well-orchestrated system of contemporary enslavement is currently in place to curtail a victim’s ability to flee or end a contract. Maids have very few avenues for escape, which only scares them into submission.
Long before 2010
Unfortunately, The Gambia has had issues with human trafficking for a long time. Ebrima Sillah, a Gambian journalist living in exile, wrote that human trafficking “did not start today.” In the 1990s, “this kind of human trafficking [was] rife” with very few perpetrators brought to justice, he wrote.
Sillah’s writing came in reaction to a repeated broadcast of an interview a Gambian online newspaper conducted with a trafficked girl. She was stranded in Kuwait and in desperate need of rescue. Listeners—mainly from the diaspora—expressed their anger, frustration, and sense of helplessness to what was happening to Gambians. The ensuing reaction on the social media was overwhelming: within a week of a fundraising drive, she was brought home. However, this young girl’s story of trafficking—without the happy ending—is common in The Gambia.
The 2016 United States Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons’ Report officially ranks The Gambia as a tier three country, meaning that it does not comply with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and is not making significant efforts to do so. According to the report, The Gambia is “a source and destination country for women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.”
“The majority of these victims are subjected to sexual exploitation by European child sex tourists. Observers believe organized sex trafficking networks use both European and Gambian travel agencies to promote child sex tourism,” it further stated.
The big puzzle…
The Gambian government dismissed the report, claiming that trafficking does not take place within its borders. Instead, it argued that it has “taken bold steps to investigate some reported cases of human trafficking across its borders, specifically in Lebanon, where human trafficking of Gambian nationals is presently being reported.” It also commented that it is “surprising and disappointing” that although the U.S. Embassy in Banjul was aware of a collaborative engagement between The Gambia and Senegal, it “was not captured in the U.S. report.”
A police spokesperson admitted that “isolated cases of human trafficking” were in fact being pursued by the police, even though there are recognized trafficking rings. Surely, the government was not happy with the police as it only confirmed the claims the U.S. State Department made against it. The journalist was arrested by the major crimes unit of the police force under “false publication” charges.
In reaction, the National Agency Against Trafficking in Persons released a media statement to “whitewash” the published newspaper reports and the TIP Report. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a statement, arguing that, “The allegation [that] the government of The Gambia did not provide comprehensive law enforcement data on trafficking in persons is also a misrepresentation of the facts, as there is adequate data on reported human trafficking cases in The Gambia.”
However, the U.S. State Department did acknowledge The Gambia’s commitment to pursuing culprits, creating awareness, and deterring the practice of human trafficking in and across its borders. “This acknowledgement,” the Gambian government’s statement read, “is all the more reason why placing The Gambia under tier three in the world country ranking remains a big puzzle.”
Sanna Camara is a Gambian journalist and blogger, and a former teaching assistant at Gambia Press Union School of Journalism. He is currently living in exile.
[Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]