Hidden Chains: Unveiling the Tragic Reality of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in the
Gulf

By: Zaya Stas

Hidden beneath the dazzling skylines and bustling cities of the Gulf, a troubling reality often
escapes our attention. Despite the glamorous facade, the Gulf region has become a distressing
center for human trafficking and modern slavery. Driven by the demand for cheap labour and
influenced by various social and economic factors, countless individuals find themselves trapped
in a web of exploitation and bondage. Migrant workers, enticed by promises of a better future,
find themselves entangled in a heart-wrenching tale of captivity that shatters their dreams.

One of the primary systems enabling this human trafficking is the Kafala (Sponsorship) system,
widely used in Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Under this
system, migrant workers are legally tied to their employers or sponsors. The sponsor takes
responsibility for the worker’s visa, legal status, and accommodation. However, this creates a
dependency relationship, as the worker’s ability to change jobs or leave the country relies on the
sponsor’s consent. Unfortunately, the Kafala system often leads to challenges such as passport
confiscation, wage withholding, long working hours, poor living conditions, and limited legal
protection. The Gulf’s insatiable demand for cheap labour provides fertile ground for human
trafficking and modern slavery, attracting millions of expatriate workers, primarily from Asia
and Africa, across industries ranging from construction and domestic work to industrial services.

The consequences of human trafficking and modern slavery extend far beyond the immediate
suffering of the victims. Families are torn apart, communities bear deep scars, and societies
shoulder the burden of this grave injustice. Yet, despite the gravity of the problem, it remains
concealed from public view, masked by the allure of progress and wealth.

Within the realm of domestic work, many female migrant workers endure isolation and
mistreatment within private households, devoid of adequate legal protection or means to seek
help. These domestic workers often toil for more than 19 hours a day without breaks, a condition
enabled by the Kafala system. As mentioned above, the Kafala system legally ties domestic
workers to their employment. As a result, it becomes illegal for domestic workers to leave or
change occupations without their employer’s permission. A poignant example of such suffering
is the tragic case of Joanna Demafelis, a 29-year-old domestic worker from the Philippines. Her
lifeless body was discovered in a freezer inside an abandoned apartment in Kuwait in 2018.
According to local media, Joanna was tortured and murdered a year before the discovery of her
body.

The story of Joanna Demafelis serves as a heart-wrenching reminder of the hidden anguish
endured by countless migrant workers in Kuwait and the wider Gulf region. Her tragic fate not
only exposes the vulnerability faced by domestic workers but also emphasizes the urgent need
for comprehensive reforms to safeguard their rights and ensure their safety.

Furthermore, the kafala system in Kuwait exposes domestic workers to increased vulnerability,
making them targets for human trafficking. Disturbingly, some employers bypass recruitment
agencies and trade workers directly among themselves. They use popular social media platforms,
such as Instagram and Twitter, to advertise and negotiate the sale of these workers. There have
been instances where women were shamefully marketed as workers through hashtags like “maids
for sale.” This degrading practice involves many women and men, with their pictures shared on
social media and categorized based on specific criteria such as age, ethnicity, personality, and
nationality. This appalling reality underscores the urgent need to address individuals’ systemic
exploitation and objectification, ensuring their rights and dignity are protected in all
circumstances.

In conclusion, the Gulf region’s glittering façade hides a distressing reality of human trafficking.
The Kafala system perpetuates a cycle of exploitation and vulnerability for migrant workers. The
consequences are devastating, not only for the victims themselves but also for their families,
communities, and societies at large. Only through collective efforts, international collaboration,
and a commitment to human rights the hidden chains of human trafficking and modern slavery
can be eradicated. It is a shared responsibility to shine a light on this dark reality and work
tirelessly to create a world free from exploitation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Canada Kuwait Aid Network.”

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