Filipina workers and maids have been trafficked from the United Arab Emirates to Syria where they have been subjected to assault, rape, abuse and the withholding of their wages, a Washington Post report has revealed.
The accounts and testimonies of 17 women from the Philippines, interviewed by the newspaper over Facebook Messenger, reveal that dozens of workers from the south-east Asian country were forced into being transferred to Syria after arriving in the UAE where they initially intended to work.
They arrived in the Emirates using 30-day tourist visas with the intention of working, but the women were apparently locked up by the recruitment agencies until the visas expired. During their detention, agency staff constantly attempted to convince them that Syria was a safe and viable alternative place to work, saying that the civil war was over, and that they would receive high salaries of around $500 per month as well as one day off per week.
Those who refused or were reluctant to work in Syria were physically assaulted and forced to move. Josephine Tawaging, 33, recounted her experience of being driven to Dubai Airport in 2019 while begging not to be sent to Damascus. She said that she was slapped and told, "If you don't go, we'll kill you." She reportedly remains in Syria, unable to leave.
Once in Syria, said the Post, the workers are kept in communal accommodation until they are displayed to customers who choose them and pay between $8,000 and $10,000. A 48-year-old grandmother who was sold in this way said, "I felt like a prostitute because we all stand in a line, and the employers choose who they want."
The women work as maids in Syria and are routinely abused and forced to work 18 hours a day, often without being allowed to contact their families. The promised salaries are usually not paid, making them prisoners in their employers' homes.
The agency in Damascus which accommodated them and sold them off was named as Nobalaa Alsham. Through its lawyer Ramdan Mohammad, it described the testimonies as "absolutely incorrect."
According to Mohammad, the workers consent to work in Syria "by video and pictures by the sending office before they travel, and we do our part to secure sponsors, homes and people who treat them very well and humanely." He claimed that, "We check on them and that they receive their full wages periodically and ask about their communication with their families via the Internet."
Although some of the women interviewed are still with their employers, others have taken refuge at the Embassy of the Philippines in Damascus. Flordeliza Arejola, 32, is one of 35 women sheltered by the embassy. "My employer slapped me and put my head into the wall," she told the Post. "I escaped because he did not give me a salary for nine months."
The embassy is not much of a better place for them, it is alleged. There are reports of strict staff, cold rooms in which they are locked overnight, and harsh punishments such as the withholding of breakfast for two weeks for minor infringements.
Their phones are also sometimes confiscated to prevent making their living conditions known to the outside world. "For almost five months," said one woman, "we couldn't communicate with our families because our phones were taken by the ambassador. It's like being in prison." Furthermore, embassy staff are said to put pressure on them to return to their employers.
When the Washington Post questioned the embassy about the claims, the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs said that an investigation has been launched. "Measures are taken to ensure the safety and well-being of Filipino victims of trafficking," it said. The ministry claimed that it has been trying to secure exit visas and pay any outstanding fines imposed by the Syrian regime on the women. Since December, officials have started to repatriate some of them.
The Philippines Consul General in Dubai, Paul Raymund Cortes, told the newspaper that, "Of course we are very concerned about their plight." He urged migrant workers to coordinate their overseas employment with their government and to seek its help if they "are being lured to work outside the UAE."