Liberian Women Trafficked in Oman

The Liberian government has asked Oman to stop issuing visas to Liberians after months of trafficking allegations. For the better part of the last year, sources have been reporting that Liberian women have been trafficked and mistreated to Oman under the country’s ‘kafala’ system. The Omani government, while refusing to take direct responsibility, has agreed to work with Liberia to tackle the crisis.

Earlier in September, the Liberian Ministry of Labour held a meeting with Omani officials, asking them to stop issuing visas to Liberians seeking jobs in Oman. Humaid Al Maani, Head of Global Affairs in Oman’s Foreign Ministry, said he welcomed the request and that his country would cooperate with Liberia to help the women.

However, he blamed labour recruiting agencies for the mistreatment of Liberian women, and criticised the media for exacerbating the situation between the two countries.

It’s far from the first time concerns have been raised over trafficking in Oman. Back in 2016, Human Rights Watch published a comprehensive report on the problem. At the time, Indonesia put bans in place in response to trafficking, preventing its citizens from migrating to Oman and similarly risky countries.

After Liberia’s request for assistance earlier this month, the NGO Do Bold raised alarms around the mistreatment of Sierra Leonean women. Of the 469 Sierra Leonean women they surveyed, all but one were identified as trafficking victims. “More than half of them experienced wage theft (60%) and physical abuse (57%),” they reported, “and approximately one-third of them experienced sexual abuse (27%).”

The Kafala System

One of the primary factors facilitating forced labour and trafficking in Oman is the country’s ‘kafala’ system. The kafala system is essentially a work visa sponsored by an employer.

However, under kafala a migrant worker’s visa is conditional to the employer, and prevents workers from seeking new jobs, even if their sponsor-employer is abusive. Most agree that it is responsible for widespread exploitation and abuse, as it gives private citizens control over workers’ immigration status and employment.

It’s been the subject of criticism for years; back in 2011, Oman announced to the UNHRC that it was “researching an alternative to the sponsorship system”. But kafala still remains in place today.

Earlier this year, Liberia was able to repatriate 27 women who had suffered under the system, after much campaigning. Most reported physical abuse, excessive work hours, and awful living conditions.

For most women in their situation, getting out is near impossible. The majority of these women come to Oman through recruitment agencies that promise them employment, in exchange for a fee from the women themselves and from their sponsor-employers.

When the women try to leave their situation, their employers will often ask them to repay this fee for which they ‘bought’ them, before having to also fund their own travel costs. Considering their extremely low wages and poor backgrounds, this makes escaping a pipe dream for Liberian migrant workers.

But efforts are being made, say government officials like Adolphus Satiah, director of the Liberian Ministry of Labour’s trafficking in person secretariat. “There are increased efforts to reintegrate repatriated individuals and raise awareness against trafficking in both rural and urban Liberia. We have also increased our rates of prosecution for trafficking. Last year we had at least seven cases resulting in conviction for trafficking.”

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