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Filipino women and girls recruited to work in UAE 'trafficked to Syria': report

The Filipino women and girls were allegedly sold off to wealthy, prominent Syrian families [AFP]

Date of publication: 25 January, 2021

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Filipino women and girls have made an appeal for help from the Philippine's embassy in Damascus.

Dozens of Filipino women and girls recruited to work in the UAE have been forcibly trafficked to Syria, according to a report The Washington Post on Sunday.

Many victims have allegedly fled physical and sexual abuse in the homes of affluent Syrian families and are now residing in Philippine's embassy in Damascus, where they are awaiting repatriation.

Some have remained in the embassy for up to two years due to difficulties in obtaining Syrian exit visas and money to pay for flights home.

The WP report is based on interview with 17 Filipino women and girls - some said to be as young as 12 - who were contacted via social media after a video surfaced online showing them allegedly inside the Damascus embassy appealing for help.

Recruitment agencies first lured in the Filipino women and girls to the UAE using 30-day tourist visas, the interviewees told The Post.

They describe being forced to stay in dirty, cramped living quarters in Dubai - like hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from poor countries whose remittance payments are the main source of income for their families back home.

During their UAE stay, agency staff peddled the idea of pristine employment opportunities in a "conflict-free" Syria. If they refused, they were subject to physical abuse and threats, the women claimed.

The women arrived on flights to Damascus in groups of two or three. There, they were held in communal accommodation owned by local middlemen until they were placed in a household.

Treated as commodities lined up to prospective customers – mostly wealthy Syrian families - their "price tags" ranged between $8,000 and $10,000, according to several of the women.

Geraldine Pahigon, 30, told the Post she was repeatedly assaulted by her new employer. "I was slapped, kicked and bitten many times," she said. "I endured this for four months."

Read also: Philippines welcomes death sentence for Kuwaiti woman who killed maid

In addition to suffering physical and sexual attacks, women describe non-payment of wages and working 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

Some women managed to escape and seek refuge in the Philippine's embassy.

"My employer slapped me and put my head into the wall. I escaped because he did not give me a salary for nine months," said Flordeliza Arejola, 32. "I waited until he was asleep and climbed over the wall. I had some money for a taxi [to the embassy]."

Yet the women told to the WP that the embassy was not the sanctuary they had imagined.

Consular staff allegedly treated them harshly, locking them in dormitory-style rooms each night and confiscating their phones.

Lailanis Abduljaber, who claimed to be 12 when she was trafficked, was taken to the embassy after being overcome by grief after the death of her brother, expecting the embassy to arrange a flight home.

Now aged 15, she has lived in the embassy for the past 20 months and staff members have asked her if she would like to return to work instead.

"It's like being a prisoner. I want to go home." she told The Post. "I miss my mom and dad."

Six of the women interviewed identified two UAE employment agencies as having played a role in the trafficking, claims which have not yet been independently corroborated.

The Phillipines' consul general in Dubai, Paul Raymund Cortes, expressed concern about the alleged trafficking of Filipino women and girls to Syria.

A lawyer for Nobalaa Alsham, a company identified by four women as the Syrian broker, rejected claims that the women were bought to the country against their will, saying the company did its "part to secure sponsors, homes and people who treat them very well and humanely".

In response to accounts of poor treatment while residing in the Philippine's embassy in Damascus, the country's department of foreign affairs said it was investigating the matter.

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