Foreign workers lured to work in Iraq

NGOs have warned of increasing numbers of foreign workers being mislead to work in Iraq for little or no pay and at great risk to their lives. Many were destined to work in Gulf countries or other Middle Eastern countries but were deceived by employers organising their travel arrangements.

“When I left Ethiopia for Jordan, they told me that I was going to work in Amman and receive US $200 a month for my services. On the second day of my arrival in Amman, they told me that I had to travel to another city by plane. Soon after, I found myself working in a house in Baghdad,” said Muluken Alemu, a 22-year-old Ethiopian who lives as virtual prisoner in the house she works in.

“I got desperate. They took my passport away and since I came here five months ago, I haven’t received a single dollar for my work - they always tell me that they’ll pay me after I complete one year of service. I pleaded with them to send me back to my country, but each time I do that, the owner of the house beats me,” Muluken added.

Muluken said that she knows many cases of girls and boys who are in the same situation, especially from Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. “I meet them when we go shopping near our homes for our bosses. We speak for a short period of time but we are all desperate and we need help from someone.”

Exploited and living in deplorable conditions

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has raised serious concern about this issue and is working to help duped foreign workers leave Iraq. IOM has helped more than 30 Sri Lankan workers flee Iraq since February 2007 after finding that they were being exploited and were living in deplorable conditions.

“In addition to being forced to work under very harsh conditions, they were forced to work more than 16 hours a day without holidays or weekends off and were forced to remain in the country as their passports were confiscated by their managers,” Jean Philippe Chauzy, an IOM spokesman, said.

''They took my passport away and since I came here five months ago, I haven’t received a single dollar for my work.''

According to local NGOs, foreigners working in similar conditions can be found in northern areas of the country, such as Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, and in the capital, Baghdad. Most of them work as housekeepers or security guards.

“Since September 2006, we have reported the cases of 54 Sir Lankan and Ethiopian workers who had been falsely lured by contractors in their countries and who only realised they were in Iraq after they heard the first bomb explosions,” said Hamed Bashier, a spokesman for Baghdad-based NGO Independent Organisation for Human Rights (IOHR).

“Our branch in Erbil has reported many more cases and some of them were even forced to join the local army. They signed their contracts to work as houseboys, housekeepers or highly paid construction workers and later found that they had been deceived when they were handed weapons,” Bashier added.

It is not known exactly how many duped foreign workers are in the country as the Iraqi government has no control over foreign workers coming to work for private companies. However, aid workers say there could be hundreds.

Iraqi government officials have said that all foreigners who cross the Iraqi border should present themselves within a week to the government’s passport and residency department. They said they have never received complaints of anyone being forced to stay in Iraq against their will.

IOM is working in partnership with the Iraqi government to tackle the issue but continued violence and the lack of a law punishing human traffickers has complicated the task.