Two years ago, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake destroyed Sita Kumal’s house in Nepal’s Gorkha district — 65 miles from the capital Kathmandu and the area hardest hit by the disaster. Kumal, 27, was already struggling to pay her two sons’ tuition fees, and a $7,000 loan for her disabled husband’s medical care, so there was no money to rebuild. She had heard from other villagers that she could make good money working in the United Arab Emirates or Malaysia, where her brother worked. So last April, she accepted the offer of a local agent to find her a job as a housemaid in Dubai, where she’d earn around $290 a month.
But Kumal’s journey took her instead to Saudi Arabia — by way of India, Sri Lanka and Kuwait. She says she endured months of physical abuse at the hands of her employers, who often denied her food and withheld her salary. “They would not allow me to return,” she tells TIME. “They had bought me from an agent.”
Kumal, who recounts her story from the offices of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, a labor organization that also helps migrant workers escape abusive employment, says she was told to lie to immigration officers before boarding a flight from Delhi to Sri Lanka. “When police at the airport ask you, tell them we’re tourists visiting the temples,” she remembers being told. Kumal says she stayed with 30 other Nepali women in two crowded rooms for 10 days until the agent told her there was a problem with the visa for the UAE, so she would be going to Kuwait. After 20 days of cleaning toilets at a private home, Kumal was driven through the night to a new house in Sakakah, a city in northwestern Saudi Arabia.
“I found out I was in Saudi [Arabia] on the second day,” she tells TIME. “They gave me a mobile phone and I talked to my husband and told him I was taken somewhere else. I asked the family where I was and they told me Saudi. I said I was supposed to be working in Kuwait, but the family told me, ‘Saudi, Kuwait. Same, same.’”
Authorities in Nepal are trying to figure out how to stop cases like Kumal’s, but have had little success. In spite of rules intended to protect Nepal’s women migrants from abuse, many travel abroad through back channels and recent reports have surfaced of Nepali immigration officials colluding with traffickers. The latest protective measure issued by the government temporarily bans Nepali nationals from traveling to Gulf countries on tourist visas if they haven’t gone before. But experts say these protective measures may simply drive migration further underground, and increase the likelihood of trafficking. In the continued economic fallout of the devastating earthquake, in which more than 8,500 people were killed and some 800,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, more poor women may feel the need to take the risk.
“Households are needing resources to build their houses, to sustain their livelihood, or to support medical treatment,” says Ganesh Gurung, a Nepali sociologist specializing in migration. Gurung adds that the earthquake increased the demand for higher paying jobs abroad, though federal policies are banning women from legally going. He says this gives traffickers a “golden opportunity” to exploit desperate women. “The middlemen will tell the girls that this is banned, so don’t tell anyone; if you tell, they will prevent you so your dream will not be fulfilled.”
Migrant workers power Nepal, propping up a flailing economy further battered by the earthquakes and on-going political instability. The money these workers send home constitutes more than 30% of Nepal’s total GDP, according to 2016 World Bank figures. But many pay a steep price for their efforts, with high rates of physical and sexual abuse, injury, and death. An investigation by the Guardian found one Nepali worker died every two days in 2014 on construction sites for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
According to government figures, migration actually dipped over the past two years, partially due to dropping oil prices and restrictions from destination countries. But these numbers only reflect those who legally emigrate. This is especially true for women, who make up 12% of the official migrant labor force, but leave en masse outside official channels. With laws designed to protect women from abuse restricting who can go and where, many are forced to hop from one country to another before reaching their final working destinations, unregistered and with no one knowing their whereabouts.
According to Rama Bhattarai at Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment, the Nepali embassy in Saudi Arabia stopped issuing work permits to Nepali women in the country; so traffickers started obtaining permits for Kuwait instead and driving the women across the border.
Some women are even winding up in war zones without a clue where they are. “Our sister was at the airport in Syria and still didn’t know she was going to Syria,” Samina Tamang, says wearily over black tea at a Kathmandu cafe. Her 22-year-old sister, Sajina Tamang, had paid an agent $300 to arrange a job in a security office in Dubai in 2014. Instead, she was confined to a house in Damascus for two years, where she says she only learned online that the “firecrackers” she heard at night were actually artillery and mortar fire.
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“Sometimes, I feel like the building will collapse and I will die,” she says via Facebook chat. Tamang also wasn’t making the promised $200-a-month salary the single mother needed badly enough to risk illegal migration. When Tamang realized she’d been duped, she asked her employers to go back home. “We paid $6,000 for you,” she remembers her boss saying. “You can pay that amount, or you can go to jail.” Tamang’s family applied to Kathmandu’s Department of Consular Services for help. Together with the Aasha Foundation, a nongovernmental organization helping trafficked women, Tamang finally returned home in September 2016, after paying her employer for permission to leave.
Tamang was one of an estimated 500-600 Nepali housemaids in Syria, despite Nepal banning labor migration to conflict zones. With little by way of a functioning government, war-ravaged Syria is a prime country for traffickers, who can easily smuggle them across the border, earning large sums in the process (Nepal’s long open border with India also makes it relatively easy to be smuggled out of the country). The mass exodus of people fleeing the Syrian war has also increased demand for domestic workers — who arrive from countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia. Cloistered in private residences, their workplace rights are at the discretion of the families they work for, and they have little recourse should things go wrong.
“The recruiting agencies [in Syria] choose Nepali women because they know there is no embassy to look after them once they get into trouble,” says Mohammed Mazed al-Zayed, a Syrian who assists the Nepali embassy in Egypt with domestic-worker-rights issues.
In Gulf countries, where over 65% of Nepal’s migrants flock, a sponsorship system called kafala requires a worker to get permission from her boss to change jobs, or even to leave the country. The moment a foreign worker escapes even an abusive situation, she’s considered to be in the country illegally (predeparture orientations warn against running away for this reason). The system has been challenged, and was abolished late last year in Qatar, but labor advocates say it’s still largely intact.
Under this system, often called modern-day slavery, even an embassy can do little, says Arjun Kant Mainali, who retired from Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2015. “So, in many cases, it is recommended that the victim comes outside the home, and then staff from the embassy or another support group help rescue and bring her to the shelter provided by the respective embassies,” he says. But a runaway worker, oftentimes bereft of her passport and documents which an employer may hold, has to go through an administrative hell and possibly even jail time to get back home.
“The government’s reaction whenever something happens is just to restrict the mobility of women,” says Bandita Sijapati, research director at Nepal’s Center for the Study of Labor and Mobility, but “the more restrictive these policies are, the more you get this illegal migration.”
In May last year, just after he was appointed Labor and Employment Minister, Deepak Bohora updated the Foreign Employment Act in the hopes of better protecting domestic workers. The newest version raises the minimum age for female domestic workers to 24 and instructs that any children they have must be at least 2 years old. She also must have a phone, and be in contact with her family once a week, and her embassy once a month. But he knows enforcement will be tricky. “They go illegally. Virtually they are sold,” he tells TIME. “Once she is gone, you don’t know where.”
The abuse started for Iswori Nepali in 2014, eight months into her tenure keeping house in Saudi Arabia. She signed on to work in Kuwait and after arriving was put in a car to cross the border. Nepali recalls her ordeal from her mother’s newly built postearthquake home — a single large brick room with a mud floor where goats and chickens freely roam. A dozen red glass bangles slide down her arms as she takes off her sari blouse and moves her thick braid aside to reveal trails of scars across her back. The 35-year-old widowed mother of two was beaten with electric cords and iron rods for small infractions such as falling asleep, or breaking things while cleaning, and once after another Nepali housemaid ran away. Nepali says she was attacked so brutally she sometimes couldn’t use the toilet. “There was not a place where I did not feel pain.”
Without a phone and afraid to run away after being caught once, Nepali believed she would die in Saudi Arabia. She was so utterly cut off from everyone that she didn’t know an earthquake had ravaged Nepal, destroying most of the houses in her village and killing her mother-in-law. Another Nepali woman working in the house had managed to escape and called Nepali’s brother who filed a case against the employer. He was arrested in October 2015 and made to pay Nepali $6,000. Half of the money went to paying back a loan.
Until there are job opportunities for lower skilled women in Nepal, the pull of money to be made abroad, despite the risks, will likely remain hard to resist. Nepali is too disabled from her injuries to work and now lives with her mother and 19-year-old sister Tara. The two women do day labor when they can find it, earning the equivalent of $4 on a good day. Tara left school after failing her high school exams and is flirting with the idea of working abroad, though spooked by her sister’s experience. “But I don’t have another option to earn money,” she says. “I think it’s luck. I don’t think it would be so bad for me as it was for her.”