Jalandhar (Punjab): On May 20, when Paramjit Rani* boarded the Muscat-New Delhi-Amritsar flight, it was the most precious moment of her life. She was finally escaping from the clutches of her Arab owners in Muscat, where she was held captive and was allegedly forced to indulge in sexual activities.
Paramjit returned to India within two months of her stay in Muscat. She was on a 12-day tourist visa trip. She was working as a caretaker-cum-domestic maid at a hospital in Muscat at a salary of Rs 30,000 per month.
She went to Muscat on March 16 and returned on May 20.
While in most cases, travel agents dupe gullible people, in Paramjit’s case, her husband’s maternal aunt conned her.
The aunt, who belongs to Jalandhar’s Raowali village, with the help of some Kerala and Sri Lanka-based travel agents, had been sending women to Muscat as domestic workers for the past few years, Paramjit told The Wire.
In the last few days, many women have been rescued safely from Muscat with the help of Aam Aadmi Party MP Vikramjit Singh Sahney and renowned environmentalist and MP Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal.
As part of their rescue mission, they reached out to the Indian Embassy in Oman and also bought tickets for the women stuck in Muscat.
A special investigation team of Punjab Police has been probing the nexus of fake travel agents and middlemen in these cases.
Paramjit was initially reluctant to narrate her story, but while talking to The Wire, she said that there were around 30 to 35 more women who were also stuck in Muscat and were allegedly forced to indulge in sexual activities.
“I am extremely thankful to MP Seechewal for bailing me out of this crisis. There were moments when I felt that my life will end in Muscat and I will never be able to see my daughter and husband again,” she said.
She along with other women aged 20 to 40 years were initially held captive in flats for 12 days. “We were given work for only two to three days a week. Our passports and mobile phones were also taken by our owners. We were allowed to speak to our families for just one hour on Fridays, that too in the presence of our owners,” she said, adding that some of the owners could understand the Hindi language.
“After being given some work at the house of an Arab family, I was being pushed to indulge in immoral [sexual] activities. I still shudder at the mere thought of how I saved myself and spent every single moment in Muscat,” she said while crying.
Luckily, Paramjit managed to speak to her husband over the phone in the washroom. She narrated her ordeal to her husband and also sent a video to the Punjab government, pleading for assistance, which helped in bringing her back from Muscat.
Her husband, Hardeep Singh, told The Wire that when he approached his maternal aunt to bring his wife back to India, she demanded Rs 3 lakh for the same. “We believed her blindly, as she was my maternal aunt. But she treated us like any other customer. She used to get a commission for sending women to Muscat,” he said.
Another Jalandhar-based woman, who, too, was forced to indulge in sexual activities, reached home in mid-May. “She, too, was promised a job as a domestic worker but was pushed into prostitution. Because of the trauma, she decided to lead a secluded life,” said Paramjit, who knew the woman in Muscat.
The human trafficking nexus
When AAP MP Sahney’s team visited Muscat twice in May this year, they found that other than Punjab, travel agents from Kerala and Hyderabad were also involved in this nexus. “Earlier, only men were involved in this nexus, but now women travel agents have also become a part of it. In some cases, the relatives of the victims are the culprits, so the trust factor exists [in such cases],” the MP said.
Sahney, who is also the international president of the World Punjabi Organisation, said that till now, they have identified 36 Punjabi women, who were stuck in Muscat, out of which 24 were safely brought back to India. “Besides the Indian Embassy officials, a shelter home set up by a gurdwara in Oman was also helping the women who wanted to return to India,” he said.
“As per law, no single woman can travel to Muscat for work. The women should have a sponsor. As soon as the one-month long tourist visa validity expires, the women were supposed to pay a fine of 10 Rial per day, which is why the sponsors seek a hefty amount as fine to release them. The sponsors also seize the passports of the women, leaving them with no scope to come back. Once found staying illegally, it becomes the sponsor’s choice whether to release the women or not,” the MP’s team shared.
There are many similar stories of Indian women being sold off to Arab families in the Gulf countries.
Twenty-year-old girl Analjit Kaur* from Rattakhera Punjab Singhwala village in the Ferozpur district was able to manage her escape before being sold off to some Arab men. She came back to India within 12 days in April.
“I was not aware of anything but I realised that something was amiss, when my owner, an Arabic woman, started forcing me to wear make-up daily. She forced me to wear a hijab, and apply make-up. She also clicked my photos, and recorded my videos. She kept telling me that I will become very rich. To my horror she passed on my videos and photos to some Arabic men, to whom I was sold off. I resisted her move but I was helpless and had nowhere to go,” she said.
Analjit said that when she learnt about the intentions of the woman, she immediately called her family. “Luckily, I had my mobile phone with me and first reached out to our village sarpanch Rajpal Sandhu through Instagram. Besides our sarpanch, I also remained in touch with one of my cousins, who was on a work visa in Muscat.”
In Analjit’s case, too, it was one of her distant relatives, a Muscat-based woman, who led her into this situation. The woman had been working in Muscat for the last eight months.
“It was my paternal aunt who introduced me to a Hyderabad-based travel agent. Before sending me to Muscat, the agent invited me to his house in Hyderabad and made me work as a maid for around a fortnight. Later, I got my tourist visa for Muscat,” she said.
She managed to escape when she got out of the bungalow to throw garbage. “My cousin had already reached my location in Oman’s Sur city from where I ran away. It was only after I escaped that I learnt that the area where I was residing was notorious for selling women,” she said.
In a choked voice, she said, “Meri izzat bhi bach gayi, te jaan bhi bach gyi (I was able to save my honour and my life, too). God has given me a second life.”
Another girl, Rupa*, from Kapurthala district, who was also sold off, became a soft target for her travel agent because of her financially weak background.
Rupa’s father, Sadhu Singh, had approached Seechewal to rescue his daughter.
“My daughter had gone to Muscat in March to work as a domestic worker but was sold off by the agent as soon as she landed there. She was invited to Muscat by one of her cousins, who promised her a well-paying job. We needed money badly because of the financial constraints back home,” he said.
She returned home after a month in April. She was kept locked in a room for several days while her passport was taken away by her agent. She was not even given any food because of which she fell ill and had to be hospitalised. “Despite being sick, my daughter was forced to work,” said Singh.
The number of cases where women were sent to countries such as Oman, Dubai, and Qatar as domestic workers-cum-caretakers has increased over the last few years.
Earlier, only men from Punjab’s Doaba belt used to go to the Gulf countries with well-paying jobs as workers in the construction, and oil and steel companies.
Talking to The Wire, Seechewal said that since April, he has brought seven women back from the Gulf countries. “While six girls were stuck in Muscat, one was trapped in Saudi Arabia. As some of the cases were delayed, we were maintaining liaison with the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman,” he added.
He has written over 32 applications to the external affairs minister, saying that the fake travel agents and their middlemen were targeting poor women in villages. These women were not well-educated and lacked any knowledge on living abroad. “With inflation at its peak, the trend of women moving to the Gulf as domestic workers and caretakers saw an increase in Punjab,” he added.
He also spoke about how these women were mentally and physically harassed in these countries.
“Once in the Middle East [or West Asia], these women are bound by a contract. Their owners get a two-year contract signed, under which, if they leave their work before the contract period, they are supposed to pay Rs 2.50 lakh, making things even worse for them,” he told The Wire.
There are other volunteers also who have helped in rescuing women from the Gulf countries and brought them back to India.
Preventing cases of human trafficking
Dubai-based philanthropist S.P.S. Oberoi, who runs Sarbat Da Bhala Trust, a charitable trust, has helped many women stuck in West Asia.
He said that the trend of women going to the Gulf nations as domestic workers started to increase around 2017.
If more than 70 women were coming back from the Gulf within a month, then around 100 were leaving for the Gulf countries as well. “In the last two months, I brought back four girls from Muscat after paying around Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh each to their sponsors. Every week girls are being brought back from the Gulf,” he said.
In the year 2019, Oberoi had brought back 104 women from Muscat. Last year, he brought back 15 women from Muscat, which included 12 from Punjab, two from West Bengal, and one from Bihar.
Recently, the philanthropist also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and external affairs minister S. Jaishankar to formulate a policy to stop the fake travel agents’ nexus. “I am glad that recently the Amritsar airport has set up a separate immigration desk, where passengers were being questioned for their visits. If the same concept is replicated in other airports, too, it will help in preventing cases of human trafficking to a large extent,” he said.
The root cause of the issue: the Kafala system
According to Balli Bahadur from Central University, Bathinda, who did his research on ‘Emigration of the Punjabi Dalits to the Middle East’ said the root cause of the issue is the Kafala system, which is the reason behind the exploitation of workers in the Gulf.
Under the Kafala system, a foreigner is not allowed to work in any of the Gulf countries without the local responsibility of the kafil (sponsor). The system requires that the emigrant works only for the sponsor and in some cases, they even keep the passport of the emigrant.
“The Kafala system is the root cause of this exploitation. It came into existence in 1975, when the Gulf Cooperation Council countries opened its doors for foreign workers following the oil boom. A majority of workers emigrate to the Gulf countries through the Kafala system, whereby an emigrant is sponsored by an employer who assumes full economic and legal responsibility for the employee during the contract period,” he said.
However, when it comes to women, the story is entirely different. “In some gulf countries, women are [reportedly] not allowed to speak up against sexual harassment cases. This is the reason why such cases are common and go unnoticed in these countries,” he claimed.
*The names of the women have been changed to protect their identity.