Undercover journalist sold as a slave in Dubai - Part 3

Apr 21, 2020

Girls must know that if they are going to work abroad, there is an equal risk of death and life; earning or failing to get money.


Undercover journalist sold into slavery in Dubai - Part 1

Undercover as a slave Part 2: Journalist in the dark of Dubai


A Vision journalist got in touch with traffickers who smuggle people to work in the Middle East, on promises of high paying jobs. They smuggled her to Dubai with promises of a lucrative job. On arrival, she ended up in an agent's holding cell. The story, which started last weekend, continues with the fall from hope to despair.

With permission and safety assurances from my bosses at New Vision, I venture into being trafficked into Dubai. We expect to find our employers waiting for us at the airport but, instead, we are rounded up by a dreadlocked man, who confiscates our passports before driving us into an apartment in town where Sara lives.

There, we are all ‘imprisoned' in a small room by Sara, who tells us we belong to her. She gives us two options for our freedom: To pay back her 4,000 dirhams (the equivalent of about sh4m) she spent on our tickets and visa, or to wait and be sold to work so that she can recoup her investment.

We all do not have money. So, we brace for the worst: Slavery or sex work.

When reality dawns on us, we wail, curse and pray, until Sara, the agent, storms into our prison room and scolds us for what she calls a stupid drama.

"Shut up!  You all belong to me! I decide what you do and what you don't," she says.

Girls explode in her face and almost beat her up. They all talk at once, asking different questions at ago that she cannot make out one to respond to. She gestures that we stop the noise and calm down. Her tough stance also changes to a calmer, negotiating voice.

She explains that she would get all of us work as maids and not sex work. And that we will all be paid sh1m monthly. After working for five months, we will pay her and redeem our passports.

That also attracts a violent response. "It is unfair to work for five months without pay," the girls yelled. In despair, she offers us her phone to call our people to send money for our freedom. Some girls call their families to communicate our predicament, others call the people who connected them and abused them of defrauding them. While others call someone who knows Dubai and can help.

Sara refuses to tell us the location of her home. All she wants is her money. I want to call New Vision to come to my rescue, but I fear to blow my cover.


When Sara leaves, we start discussing the way forward. We accept to be sold as long as it is for work. Then we work for a month as we study the geography of the place. We then escape to the streets and find our way to the Ugandan embassy in UAE.

As we adjust to our sorry circumstances, we become friends and start sharing our plight. One girl says she was brought by an agent called Gloria who says she lives in Dubai. She was also helped by William at the airport. She was told she would work as a teacher in Dubai for 1,200 dirhams (sh1.2m) per month.

I discover that, for some girls, it is not the first time. They have been to countries, such as Oman, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Their stories about Arabs and work are scaring.

We hardly sleep. At about 5:00 am, another girl is brought in. She is Ghanaian and in her early 20s. She was told she would work in a salon and that her job was ready. She carries a big suitcase with artificial hairpieces. We tell her about our plight and she also bursts out crying. She wails non-stop speaking words we do not understand. She even refuses to eat. She threatens a hunger strike till she gets her passport back. However, two days later, she starts eating and is ready to work as a maid.

Online sale

The following day, we had black tea and kubs for breakfast. Kubs are similar to chapatti, but harder. Unfortunately, kubs and macaroni fail to go well with me. I develop constipation and spend days without visiting the toilet.

At about midday, Sara calls us to individually record videos for her clients. She says she wants to sell us online. She puts our videos online and buyers pay for us. I am the second to be called. She gives me a veil to cover myself and asks me to repeat what she is saying.

"I am a good girl. I know how to cook, how to clean a house, how to take care of babies, how to wash clothes and how to iron."

I repeat her words as she records a video. Some girls refuse to take pictures, saying they were already online for sale and no one was buying them.

That day, Sara sells two girls. They are told to pack their bags to go and work. We do not know if they are going to families or brothels. We cry and bid each other farewell and promise to pray for each other. That, for us, is a relief from overcrowding because from seven girls, we remain five.


More Ugandans arrive

On the same Thursday night, at about 11:00 pm, another group of six Ugandans arrives. We were now 11 in that small room without ventilation. Although there is AC, we feel suffocated.

The new girls are briefed about the situation and the cycle of tears and wailing repeats. One of them has an app on her computer, which has Internet. She creates a hotspot and we start using our phones and are able to locate where we are.

I am able to brief my bosses at the New Vision and receive new guidelines. We agree that I wait longer to find out more. They also promise to start drafting an evacuation plan.

Most of the girls are quarrelling with someone who either brought them or came up with the idea. It becomes so noisy that Sara storms into the room with some members of her family to check what is happening. She then demands that we hand over all our phones.

A protest ensues, but Sara stands her ground. She withdraws all phones, except mine because I claim not to have. I hide it in my pants. She searches me and even orders me to undress. Still, she fails to find it.

She again makes it clear that we can buy our freedom by refunding her money. One of the newcomers pleads with her, saying she left a six-month-old baby and asks to be allowed to leave on humanitarian grounds. Sara ignores her. To operate in this trade, one needs to be indifferent to the plight of others. I fear she is the type who will easily sell us into prostitution to recover her money. Her money is all she cares about.

The following day being a Friday means it is a holiday in Dubai. We start praying that we are bought soon. We have no option, but to abide by her rules and instructions. We are allowed to shower (without soap) once a day. We have breakfast of black tea and kubs. Lunch is macaroni and, sometimes, rice. Supper is hot dogs, soup and kubs. Sometimes, plain rice.

The room is a size of an ordinary bathroom, covered by the two mattresses, which we lie down and sleep on horizontally: Our heads on the mattress and legs down on the carpet. You can never tell whether it is daytime or night time because we have no access to the outside. There is always electricity and AC. We have no way of washing our clothes, so we share with some girls who carried many clothes. We use one toilet and the room starts smelling. However, we eventually get used to the smell.

That Friday, we received two more girls, who had been bought from Sara earlier, but were rejected by the employers after one and two months of work, respectively. They return to await another turn. They narrate to us several things: How a typical Arab home looks, the character of an Arab employer, the nature of work as a maid and, the most scary of all, the slave market. Others are what employers expect from maids, the lack of human rights in some Arab homes. Their experiences do not hit me as hard as the news about the slave market.

While it is so unnerving and horrible for most girls, it gives me a hope of a good story. I feel like I am on the verge of exposing a big racket of an evil, long forgotten in history.

We are told that those who are not bought online, will most likely end up at the market where they sell maids. The returnee girls call it a slave market. We are told of the inhuman treatment of people at the slave market.

The story reminds me of the chicken in a cage at a market place, spending a full day waiting to be bought. And the feeling of relief after being let out of the cage, only to be slaughtered after.

As the number grows to nine, we start fighting for food. Sara also reduces meals from two to only lunch and just a kub for dinner. Then we are told there is no breakfast. We are allowed into the kitchen to cook for ourselves some tea with a kettle, but no sugar.

In the kitchen, we often bump into Sara's family members who jeer at us or abuse us for being parasites to their sister or mother.

Now that hunger is tormenting us, we use the kitchen opportunity to scavenge on the family's leftovers of food. We offer to wash the family's utensils to get a chance to scrape off the rice and chicken they left on plates and dishes.

The Slave market

On Monday, we are told to get ready for the ‘office'. Sara calls it ‘office' but those who have been there, say it was a market for domestic workers, a slave market.

In spite of all the humiliating stories we have been told, we all get excited. She demands that we do not use makeup and that even later, if we get bought, we desist from using make-up because Arab wives will develop suspicion about us intending to seduce their husbands.

Sara briefs us on how we have to behave at the office. She says we have to keep calm at her stall as we wait for buyers. She says Arabs prefer maids with experience.

So, those who can, should claim they have worked before. She explains that those who have less than two years of working experience in Dubai, will be earning 8,000 dirhams (sh800,000) and those with experience, 1,000 dirhams (sh1m).

We get ready in long dresses and shawls covering our heads. We move with our bags, in case we are bought. We are told to squeeze into Sara's car, but we cannot fit as the car is too small. So, Sara orders two of us to return to the room. I am one of the people who is not taken out of the nine girls.

We return, sobbing, ruing yet another day of imprisonment and hunger.

That day, Sara sells four; three return with their hands on their heads, narrating stories of a human market. Sara was also in a foul mood, calling returnees damage.

Our turn is for the next day.

Traffickers protected

Alex Sembatya,
CEO, Make A Child Smile, non-governmental organisation that repatriates trafficked girls

I have repatriated many victims from the Arab countries, but it has been difficult. Girls must know that if they are going to work abroad, there is an equal risk of death and life; earning or failing to get money.

The prosecution of people involved in trafficking requires such a high threshold of evidence that is difficult to achieve without risking the safety of the victims. We have gathered evidence and approached the authorities, but they toss us around for more evidence.

There are other challenges, too. Often, the victims of trafficking know the people who led them into it. It is hard to fight if traffickers remain untouched or are not prosecuted in a way that protects the victims. Some traffickers threaten to harm the victim's family, preventing victims from reporting them in the first place.

Others are protected by big people in power. The labour export market is a boon for them and the economy. So, any attempts to question the perpetrators gets you warnings. Traffickers have informants in Uganda's security organisations who warn them about Police operations.

Venis Tumuhimbise

Commissioner of Police  Anti-human Trafficking Task Force desk

I always advise relatives of the victims to report to this office. Several of them come. We want the names of the victim, age, the country she is suspected to be in, the nature of complaint and the company or individuals that took her.

When one was taken by an unregistered company or individual, we advise the relatives to record a statement and open a file against the trafficker with our Police at internal affairs. We then follow up the case.

If it is a company that took her, I advise them to put the complaint in writing and address it to this office, copy in the gender ministry and the company that allegedly took her.

I can follow up with the ministry, which gives licences, but I am only a co-ordinator. I stand as a go-between to make sure the complaints are heard.

I, sometimes, write to the foreign affairs ministry and Interpol when it comes to repatriation. Repatriation needs a lot of paperwork. For the three months I have been in this office, we have not repatriated anyone, other than intercepting girls being trafficked out of the country.

As the anti-human trafficking desk, we are also trying to sensitise Ugandans about the risks of human trafficking either as a business or a conduit to move out of the country.

This story was done with the support of the Democratic  Governance Facility (DGF)

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