Stories from the Gate

by Mike Clancy

The story of Reza: Another case of human trafficking

Stories from the gateReza comes from the province of Zambales in the Philippines, from a small town just north of the Subic Bay Freeport. She is 29 years old and seeking to recover from tuberculosis which she contracted during the short period she spend in the United Arab Emirates.

Reza is a beautician by training having graduated from a local college in Olongopo, the nearest major town to her home. She ran her own beauty shop, employed two other staff and while not exactly making her fortune, she was doing well and supporting her family. But the grass is always greener elsewhere and Reza was impressed by a local labour recruiting agency that passed through her town one day looking for workers who were prepared to spend a year working in the Emirates.

As a trained beautician, her skills would be much in demand. There were many Filipinos running successful parlours in the Middle East; why should she not be one of them? She took the bait and a few weeks later was on her way to Dubai. She had sold her business to raise the funds needed by the agency for her visa and employment processing and this had taken pretty much all she had. “Never mind,” she thought, “I can make this back and much more in just a few short months.” How wrong, she proved to be. It was only when she was on her way to the Manila International Airport, that she realized that she had been given a one-month visitor visa and not the employment visa she had expected. “Don’t worry” she was assured by her escort “this is just to get you there quickly, once you are in the UAE our agency will change the visa for you.” This was her first inkling that something may be amiss, but it was too late to do anything now, “better go there and sort it out after arrival,” she thought.

Reza stepped off the plane at Dubai airport and was met by another Filipina who introduced herself as Diane and who, Reza judged, was of similar age. Diane took her passport and papers from her and told her it was to change her visa. She was then taken to her accommodation, which was a small dingy room in an old decrepit apartment building that she was told she would have to share with five other girls. There were two sets of three-tier bunks in the room but little else. Her fears were starting to mount as the reality was proving to be quite different to the picture that had been painted to her before she signed up.

Then came the shocking news from Diane that to change her status from that of a visitor visa to an employment visa, the agency would charge her an additional AED17,000 (around US$4,600). Her shock at this news was instantaneous and devastating. She was told by Diane that she would be put to work in a bar and that she could easily pay this money back. Once she had paid this amount she would be free to keep her earnings for herself but until this time, any money she made would have to be paid to Diane, who was in effect her mamasan. Only then, did the cold blast of reality hit her and Reza froze with the realization of what she had got herself into.

That night she was picked up with the other girls and taken to one of the hotel bars that abound in Dubai. It is only in the hotels that alcohol is allowed to be served and expatriates as well as wealthy Arabs congregate in these places in droves each evening; some to the extent of having the best tables permanently reserved for their use. One of the girls with her, Jenalyn, realizing her state of agitation sought to take her under her wing. On arriving at the bar Jenalyn looked around for some familiar faces and found a couple she knew slightly, British expatriate businessman who was there with his Filipina wife. She introduced Reza to the couple explaining that she was new in town. The couple invited Reza to join them and brought her a drink. Very quickly, they learned the story which did not surprise them, they had heard it all before although the price demanded by Diane for return of Reza’s papers surprised them somewhat. They left the bar with Reza shortly afterwards and explained that she could stay at their place for the evening, promising to make some phone calls the following morning to see if they could assist her in finding legitimate work.

They had not been in their car for more than a few minutes when Reza’s phone rang. It was Diane demanding to know how much the couple were paying her. The phone was taken from her by the couple and Diane was told in no uncertain terms that where she was going, what she was doing and what she would be paid was no business of hers.

That night Reza was well looked after and she was given some money by the coupe the following morning and told to say as little as possible to her mamasan but to keep in touch, and they would try and see what they could do using their connections.

Things did not progress quickly and Reza had no choice but to work the bar as a prostitute. Diane was never out of sight and Reza had to turn over all her income. Unbeknown to Diane, Jenalyn continued to slip her sufficient cash to buy a cell phone load so that she could stay in contact.

This situation continued for three months. Reza’s agency obtained two one month extensions for her to her original visa but at the end of the third month she had to leave the UAE for a while and took the least costly option used by expats on limited budgets—a trip to Kish Island off the coast of Iran.

Kish Island is a duty free port and resort area. Politically, it is part of the Hermozg?n Province of Iran. An island of only 21,000 residents, it nevertheless attracts 5 million visitors a year chiefly because no visa is needed to visit the island and travel permits can be issued after arrival. This explains its attraction for those expatriates needing to undertake visa runs.

The island boasts of many fine resorts and coral reefs for those wishing to explore them but Reza’s visit was under much more basic conditions. She was advised to go and wait on the island while her new visa was processed. It would then be sent to her by fax enabling her to return to Dubai and her original visa papers would be waiting there at the airport on her return. This process would take only a few days to complete but, of course, required additional cash, which Reza had to borrow from her friends and pay to Diane before she left.

Arriving on Kish and with only very little cash in her pocket she was forced to stay in the cheapest accommodation possible.  Her budget for food and accommodation was only AED50 (US$13.50) per day. Or to put this in purchasing power terms, this represented about the cost of a Big Mac meal. In her circumstances, she had no choice but to opt for the cheapest room she could find and which she shared with nine others. The place was squalid and without running water or proper sanitation but she reasoned she could endure it for two or three nights.

Again she found her plight to be worse than she imagined. She arrived on Kish Island on 14 December 2008 and did not manage to return to Dubai until 30 January. After waiting on the island for a week without hearing from Diane she quickly realized that she had been double-crossed and that Diane had taken her money without any intention of processing a new visa application. She was to be left stranded. She used the last of her cash to phone her British friends and beg assistance anew which they readily gave. Through their efforts she was eventually given a visa and the money needed to return to Dubai and was met by Jenalyn at the airport upon her return.

Jenalyn explains: “I was shocked at her condition and at first did not recognise her.” “She had lost around 10 kilogrammes in weight and looked terribly gaunt and agitated.”  She appeared to have aged 10 years in the space of just six weeks and could barely bring herself to recount her ordeal.” “It took us several days to tease it all out of her. It was a shocking story.”

Even after several days resting at their home, Reza continued to feel listless and her condition showed little sign of improvement. It was only then that the couple realized that Reza was in fact ill and they took her to their company doctor for a medical check-up. There they heard the grim news; Reza had contracted TB as a result of her stay on Kish.

TB is a notifiable disease and Reza was transferred immediately to the isolation ward of al Rashid hospital in Dubai where treatment is free. The downside is that anyone with TB is deported from the Emirates and she was only allowed to stay in hospital and receive treatment for as long as it took to arrange her exit papers and her return to the Philippines as soon as she was well enough to travel.

Her friends visited her at the hospital every day and took her Filipino food in an effort to cheer her up. They were the only visitors she had during her entire confinement. They notified the Philippine Embassy as well as Diane but she had no other visitors.

But that is not the end of this story. Her friends also made contact with another journalist friend of theirs whose newspaper is now investigating the story. With the cooperation of the UAE authorities, this particular agency is under investigation and charges may yet be laid against certain Emirati and Filipino nationals as well as, possibly, others. It may be too late to help Reza in any meaningful way, but publication of her story, may possibly provide a cautionary warning to others who may be contemplating the prospects of making easy money.