Dubai's Promised Land of Luxury Lures Women Into Sexual Slavery
Nov. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Fei Fei, a 22-year-old from China's Guangdong province, has a souvenir of her eight months in Dubai: burns on her back and arms from cigarette butts crushed against her skin when she refused to work as a prostitute.
She eventually submitted when a criminal gang threatened to send nude photos of her to family members. That indignity, she said, would have been worse than selling her body.
``They take pictures of me naked in shower,'' Fei Fei said in broken English as she pulled up her shirt to reveal the dark red circular marks. Soon afterward, she adopted the English name ``Lucy,'' and sold sex in Dubai bars for 500 dirhams ($130) a trick to claw back her freedom.
Fei Fei's story symbolizes the dark side of Dubai, better known for its skyscrapers, sail-shaped hotel and man-made islands built in the shape of palm trees. The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is the second-largest member, is on a U.S. State Department watch-list for failing to take ``meaningful steps'' to end trafficking of women for prostitution and other workers trapped in conditions of slavery.
There are an estimated 10,000 victims of human trafficking in Dubai, according to the department's 2007 report. U.A.E. officials say the figure overestimates the problem and that they have begun to take action, passing the first anti-trafficking law in the Middle East.
Flush With Cash
Dubai has transformed itself from a trading village to the Persian Gulf's financial and tourist hub with lower taxes and a more vibrant nightlife than other Gulf states. Bars heave with men drinking $10 beers and women in short skirts.
That's attracted rich Saudis, U.S. oil workers flush with cash after stints in Iraq, and bankers who are paid as much as 40 percent more than those in London or New York.
Affluence has increased the demand for laborers and housemaids, and the development of laws to protect them from exploitation hasn't kept pace, the International Labor Organization said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Women from Asia and Africa often sign contracts to work as maids, waitresses, hairdressers and secretaries, only to have employers confiscate their passports and force them to work as prostitutes, the U.S. report said. Others work excessive hours under the threat of mental, physical or sexual abuse until they can pay off recruitment costs.
``Once they are there, they find that their contract is not valid,'' said Basil Fernando, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission. ``They get stranded.''
Fear of Rape
Anne Valdez, 25, from Quezon City near Manila, lasted four months as a housemaid before she ran away.
Valdez said she traveled to the U.A.E. because wages were higher there than at home. She was brought over by a U.A.E.- based labor agency after signing a contract to work for $200 a month. Her employers paid Valdez $160 and made her work 19 hours a day.
``I couldn't leave the house the whole time,'' Valdez said in a Dubai coffee shop. ``I even couldn't call my family. I was scared I would be raped.''
Valdez considers herself lucky. She spent 10 months hiding with relatives, avoiding police and working part-time jobs at hotels to help support herself. She said supervisors often made sexual advances, though they never assaulted her or forced her into prostitution.
Valdez returned to the Philippines with no job and no savings to support her 1-year-old son, after taking advantage of a government amnesty that allowed illegal workers to leave.
Making an Effort
Worldwide, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, the State Department said. Kuwait and Qatar are ranked on the same watch-list for cases of involuntary servitude, not sexual exploitation as in the U.A.E. Saudi Arabia is on a worse tier ranking than the U.A.E.
In July, the U.A.E. formed a committee of senior officials to combat human trafficking, and it has opened a shelter for abused women. In the past year it has closed 40 hotels and clubs that allowed prostitution, said Anwar Gargash, minister of state for Federal National Council Affairs in Dubai.
``We are committed to tackling this problem on several levels through the rigorous prosecution of criminals, preventative measures and, most importantly, protection of victims of this crime,'' Gargash said.
Any crackdown on such crimes comes too late for Emily Ivy from Edo State in southern Nigeria.
The 22-year-old was forced into prostitution by her step- sister, who lured her to Dubai with the promise of a job in a beauty salon. She was told to pay $15,000 to get her identification back and continues to work the bars to send money to her widowed mother.
``I came to work in a beauty parlor for my sister,'' Ivy said. ``Three months later, I was told to go to the bars to sell my body. I don't want to do it anymore. I am tired.''
She has applied for a job as an air stewardess.
Fei Fei's journey to Dubai also ended badly. Once she had plans to study English at a language school in the city, but after paying her pimp 6,000 dirhams a month, she managed to save enough money to return to China.
``I want to change my job,'' she said before departing.