Asian Women Are Being Trafficked Into Syria as Servants and Slaves

Poor women from Bangladesh and Nepal are being trafficked into Syria to work as domestic servants or prostitutes—and many have no idea there’s a war going on until they arrive.

03.21.16 5:00 AM ET

In recent months, multiple reports have surfaced of poor, rural women from Bangladesh and Nepal being trafficked into Syria to work as domestic servants—and sometimes as sex slaves.

“They are innocent, uneducated women who come from the villages. They do not know anything about Syria and what is happening there,” Commander Khadaker Golam Sarowar of the Bangladeshi police told Reuters. In the past year alone, he says his unit has come across 45 different cases of women who have been beaten, tortured, or raped in Syria. 

“They think they are going to Jordan or Lebanon to have a better life,” he said.

Since the implementation of the Kafala, or “sponsorship” system facilitating the movement of migrant workers from Southeast Asia and parts of Africa to work in the Middle East, thousands of women have left their homes to work in Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries with a demand for cheap labor. While many women initially sign up by choice, the high recruitment fees (often at least $3,000) give them little choice over employment options, landing them in underpaid, exploitative jobs as domestic workers—or in some cases, sex workers. They stay out of necessity to pay back their debts, and try to make the experience a profitable one.

“Most workers pay huge recruitment fees, as many as a few thousand dollars, in their home country in order to obtain jobs in the Gulf,” Priyanka Motaparthy, an independent human-rights researcher, writes in Understanding Kafala: An Archaic Law at Cross Purposes With Modern Development.

“With family members depending on them to send money, to feed them and pay expenses, but more urgently, make debt payments lest a money lender take their home from them, migrants are under huge pressure to pay back these debts.”

Many foreign domestic workers who were working in Syria before the war, or in its early days, fled with their employers or went home after the war started. However, another generation was tricked into entering the country to work for the families who chose to stay. While these workers are mostly being trafficked to, and working in, regime-held areas in Damascus, there is still violence from the ongoing war that many were not expecting.

“I didn’t realize there was a war going on [in Syria],” a 25-year-old Nepalese woman named Gyanu Reshmi Magar who was trafficked from Kathmandu to Damascus told the Guardian in an interview this year. It was only when she started hearing loud noises throughout the city—which her employers reassured her were army training—that she began to research the country, and found out about the war through the Internet.

“The agent told me it was like America,” she continued, speaking to an all-too-common experience with dubious recruitment agents.

Escaping servitude is complicated by fleeing the war. While Magar was able to make contact with the Nepalese embassy in Egypt online—which then facilitated her escape—officials from the embassy say that helping domestic workers flee Syria is not easy, as they do not always enter the country legally. That makes their presence another, largely undocumented, casualty of the Syrian Civil War.