By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent
The Middle East has one of the worst records of human trafficking in the world. And the oil-driven economic boom that has embraced the region for quite a number of decades is one of the main reasons why. Denizens from the poorer regions of the world, like Southeast Asia, flock to the Middle East in droves looking for a better life and just a couple of crumbs from the massive oil wealth. However, many are in for a rude awakening as they are turned into modern day slaves without rights or even a voice to protest the precarious circumstances unscrupulous recruiting agencies in their homelands have forced them into.
Itâ€™s not uncommon to read about a housemaid jumping from the roof of a mansion in Dubai to her certain death or to hear about a day laborer in Kuwait hanging himself from a ceiling fan in his lackluster accommodations. In fact, those are two true stories that were reported recently. Life as an indentured servant, being abused and rarely paid, is a reality that is too difficult for some to bear. However, the vast majority of these laborers quietly suffer in the hopes that one day their situation will improve and that they might actually be compensated for all of their suffering and toiling. In between these two extremes is a gray area that many poor laborers in the Middle East find themselves. On one hand they certainly do not want to die and on the other quietly suffering for countless years is not an option. For them, the only choice is to run.
Runaway maids, chauffeurs and day laborers are just a few of the scores of laborers that somehow manage to escape the clutches of their employers and make it back to their embassies. However, reaching that â€œsafe zoneâ€ is only half the battle. It takes time to be repatriated to their homelands and most embassies are full to capacity. With next to zero social infrastructure or resources in place in most regions of the Gulf to pick up the slack, the workers are left to languish in limbo.
There is a small glimmer of hope for some of the laborers who find themselves far away from home and suffering in isolation. In Kuwait, for example, a group of American expatriates have set up a program called â€œTrash to Treasureâ€ to help uplift workers that have sought refuge in their embassies. According to the programâ€™s mission statement, their purpose is, â€œâ€¦to inspire disenfranchised domestic workers in Kuwait towards independence and creativity.
Volunteers for Trash to Treasure accomplish this by first reaching out to the workers by offering free haircuts, massages and manicures. Then handicrafts, like carpet making, using recyclables are taught to teach the workers a skill that they might one day take back to their homelands. The rugs and carpets are sold in Kuwait with half the proceeds being used to purchase essentials like toiletries and clothing items for impoverished workers. The other half goes to the person that crafted the rug or carpet. Trash to Treasure plans to expand their services to other embassies in Kuwait that are full of disenchanted workers simply waiting to go home.
The lack of social amenities and programs for runaway workers in the Middle East is staggering. Certainly, Trash to Treasure can serve as a beacon of hope that other Middle Eastern governments can strive to replicate.