While millions are fleeing the brutal conflict in Syria, hundreds of Nepalese women are being trafficked to the war-torn country and forced to work as domestic maids. The women, who are duped into travelling to Damascus, often arrive in the country with no idea they are being sent to a war zone.
“I didn’t know anything about Syria. I didn’t realise there was war going on … The agent told me it was like America,” said Gyanu Reshmi Magar, 25, who was promised a job in Dubai but found herself forced into domestic service in the Syrian capital.
Magar, who was trafficked to Syria through India and then Oman and Dubai, begged to be sent back to Nepal only to be told, “We bought you for $6,000 [£4,000]. You can’t go home unless you pay back that money.”
The trade in women from Nepal to Syria is thriving, according to a Nepalese diplomat. “There’s a heavy flow of women to Damascus. Last year we estimated there were about 300 Nepalese women in Syria and since then the number has increased … It’s a big, big number, maybe five to six hundred,” he said.
“It is very easy [for agencies in Damascus] to get hold of girls … They place an order and then get the girls to come to Dubai … The girls don’t know they are going to Damascus,” explained the diplomat. “When they arrive, they are shocked to find themselves in Syria.” He added that Nepalese women are also being taken to other conflict zones, including Iraq and parts of north Africa.
Nepal does not have an embassy in Syria or Iraq, but a spokesperson from the Nepalese embassy in Pakistan said there were about 3,000 Nepalese women working in Kurdistan and Iraq, adding that it was difficult to ascertain how many were working there willingly and how many had been deceived into going.
Soon after Magar arrived in Damascus, she was taken to work for a family in the capital. “I was completely cut off from the world. All I did was work and sleep … I wasn’t able to contact anyone. I didn’t leave the house for seven months,” she said.
At first Magar had no idea she was in a war zone. “When I asked the family about the bombs, they just said it was the army training,” she said. It was only when she got access to the house’s Wi-Fi that she discovered the truth. “I found out about the war through the internet. There were so many loud sounds … I was afraid, but I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Internet access also proved to be Magar’s escape route. She managed to contact her family in Nepal through Facebook, and eventually Nepal’s embassy in Egypt arranged her rescue.
After 17 months, Magar returned to Nepal virtually empty-handed. “I was supposed to be paid $160 a month, but I was only paid for six months. When I left I asked [my employer] about my salary,” said Magar. “She took $20 from her purse and threw it at me. Then she spat in my face.”
Nisha Baniya of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, who helped to secure Magar’s release, says the Nepal government must do more to help. “Since there is no consulate in Syria or Iraq, these women have no one to contact if they get into trouble,” said Baniya. “The government says they do not have sufficient financial resources, but they should at least send a labour attache to these countries.”
Durpada Sapkota, a senior civil servant at Nepal’s ministry of foreign affairs, says about 25 Nepalese domestic workers have contacted the ministry asking to be rescued, but that it is difficult to track them down as they have not travelled through formal channels.
“The Nepal government has now appointed a Syrian national to work with the embassy in Egypt that deals with the cases of Nepalese in trouble,” said Sapkota. “We are also looking into cases brought to us by families who are trying to rescue their daughters.”
One case taken to the ministry recently was that of Sunita Magar, 23. Magar, a mother of two young children, paid 80,000 Nepalese rupees (£500) for what she thought was a job in Kuwait; her agent tricked her into going to Syria instead.
“Syria was a nightmare for me,” said Magar, who worked there as a domestic worker for 18 months. “I don’t want to think about those days. It was really tough. I had to work almost 20 hours a day. I wasn’t given enough food to eat and didn’t even get time to sleep. I was beaten time and again. I wasn’t paid a single rupee. I went abroad for [my children’s] future but got nothing. Even my husband left me and is now married to another woman.”
Sunita Magar was eventually rescued by a Nepalese man who helped raise enough money to buy her freedom. Now back in Nepal, Magar has a warning for other women looking to work abroad. “I can’t say don’t go, but do go through the proper channels by doing all the necessary paperwork … so that if you get in trouble there will be someone to rescue you.”
It is a message echoed by Gyanu Magar. “The promises of all the agents are fake. I have brought nothing back [from abroad]. I only got punished there … I don’t want anyone to go abroad for work, [but if you do] make sure you know everything before you go,” she said. “Sometimes when I wake up, I’m afraid I’m still in Syria.”