Kenya Must Do More to Protect Migrant Workers in the Middle East

Nairobi — Most Kenyans migrating to the Middle East for jobs are subjected to domestic servitude, sexual abuse, torture and acute violation of terms of employment.

According to a research report released by the ENACT programme on enhancing Africa's response to transnational organised crime on Wednesday, over 90% of women interviewed were duped and exploited with promises of decent jobs in the Middle East.

"Grievances included sexual harassment, physical and verbal abuse, denial of medical attention, long working hours, restrictions on movement and communication and inadequate food and accommodation," the report states.

This is attributed to flaws in Kenya's legislative framework that overlooks the plight of migrant workers. But the report also says there has been little action to help the victims, who are mostly unskilled and low-paid.

"The rise of human trafficking networks is due to lack of legal protection and operational insight. Kenya has many labour laws, but they don't refer directly to labour exportation and don't protect migrant workers," ENACT says.

Despite Kenya's multiplicity of labour migration regulations and criminalisation of human trafficking, the research reveals that 'illicit human movement networks are active and growing in Kenya' with cartels taking advantage of a legal provision permitting foreign recruitment of Kenyans.

"A 2014 ban on foreign recruitment of Kenyans was lifted in 2017 after human trafficking was criminalised and labour migration regulated, but unscrupulous traffickers responded by going underground," the report says. "The organised criminal industry of exploitative human movement stayed active and continued to grow, driven by security, business and political elites."

ENACT found that 12 unregistered agencies were responsible for recruiting over 2,000 Kenyans and trafficking them, under the guise of offering them jobs abroad - yet the government has done nothing much to act against the traffickers.

Last year, the State Department for Labour reported that 29,448 Kenyan migrants were working in Saudi Arabia as homecare managers between March 2019 and January 2020.

During a regional ministerial forum held the same year, Kenya admitted that existing gaps in the country's multiple and uncoordinated labour migration policies and departments were to blame for poor implementation of regulations, and that had exposed Kenyans to exploitation abroad.

"Migrant workers at times sign contracts with local recruiting agents before departure but upon arrival in the country of destination, they are forced to sign new contracts drawn in foreign languages they do not comprehend which leave them vulnerable to exploitation," Eng. Peter Tum, Principal Secretary, State Department for Labour, stated then.

The national Diaspora Policy, the National Employment and Strategy Policy for Kenya and the Foreign Policy are the frameworks relied on by different agencies, including the Labour and Social Protection Ministry, the National Employment Authority, the Directorate of Immigration and the Foreign Affairs Ministry to handle labour migration issues.

Citing the fragmentation of policies and the overlap of implementing departments, the Labour Ministry in January announced that a Labour Migration Management Bill and Policy was receiving its final touches 'to provide an overarching regulatory framework' to manage migration issues.

However, this bill is yet to be realised.

Though Kenya boasts of having labour attaches and bilateral agreements with Gulf Cooperation Council member countries -including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar - to deal with labour issues affecting Kenyans, reports of slavery, sexual exploitation, torture and murders of Kenyans in the Middle East have been common occurrences for years.

According to ENACT, despite the harrowing experiences of victims,"there appeared to be little interest in addressing the problem because it mostly affects unskilled, rural and low-income people".

The laxity in taking action is further linked to a lack of 'enforcement of the existing legislation and lack of a comprehensive framework for labour migration', it added.

Resource allocation and emphasis on investigation, prosecution and conviction of human traffickers, ENACT advises, would be most effective in dismantling the organised criminal networks and fostering a pro-active approach to protect vulnerable populations.

Partners in the ENACT programme are the Institute for Security Studies, INTERPOL, and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Judie Kaberia is a fellow of the Resilience Fund of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime

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