Women in Kashmir are at risk from unscrupulous agents who lure them overseas with the promise of good jobs. © Reuters
India, Dubai authorities grapple with flow of people duped by shady agents
SRINAGAR — Nasrullah wanted a job that would brighten her family’s prospects. But her home in Indian-administered Kashmir, a Himalayan region haunted by decades of conflict, offered few opportunities. Moving abroad seemed like the only hope.
She contacted an agent, who promised her a paramedic job in Dubai. Armed with a year of experience in the field, she was confident. Setting aside nagging doubts about how the agent had secured a tourist visa for her rather than a professional one, she flew to the sparkling Gulf city last November.
“I was skeptical about it,” Nasrullah recalled. “The agent, however, kept on assuring me that I was going for a well-paying job, and that the visa would be fixed later.”
Upon arrival, her suspicions soon proved warranted. She found herself caught in a scam that has ensnared countless people, especially from Asia and Africa, who are lured to the Gulf by the promise of good jobs but wind up stuck in appalling conditions and menial work, such as domestic help.
“There are more Kashmiri girls coming into Dubai like this, and they get trapped here,” said Rehana Rashid, who works as an investigator with a risk management company.
Rashid said she has tried to help many of the women by reaching out to the Indian Consulate in Dubai, but she lamented, “It is difficult for me to keep track of every case.”
The women “are hesitant to speak up, fearing reprisals from the agents, and also feel it would be embarrassing for them to face their parents,” Rashid said.
Sidhu Roop, an official with the Indian High Commission in Ajman, said such trafficking is common in the Gulf, though his office only recently encountered its first cases from Kashmir. “Recently five Kashmiri women came to us who were promised nursing jobs but were duped by the agents,” he said. “They were distressed and we had to facilitate the immediate return of two of them.”
In Nasrullah’s case, upon arrival in Dubai she was told to go to the city of Ajman, where she met another agent. From there she was taken to cramped accommodation and told to stay until her documentation was complete.
“It was an unhygienic single room with an overflowing toilet,” she said. “There were already around 15 other girls living there.” For nearly 20 horrific days, she was unable to contact her family. “There was no internet Wi-Fi connection, and I had no SIM card.”
Nasrullah realized she was just one of many women who have been brought to the United Arab Emirates by such agents under false pretenses. She even found two other Kashmiri women who had been duped by the same agent and “sold” to a foreign agent.
“They basically lied to us about the job,” Nasrullah said. “We were told that now we will have to work as a domestic help in different houses.” She would “sit in a corner of a room and cry,” thinking that she would never make it home.
It was during a trip to the hospital that she managed to get online and call her family — and the agent who had tricked her.
“I couldn’t tell everything to my family, but I called my agent and threatened him that I would call the police if he didn’t take me back home,” she said. The threat worked. She was allowed to book a ticket and return to Kashmir.
Others are not so lucky.
Ulfat Jan, a 21-year-old from the Baramulla area of Kashmir, was forced to work as a maid after reaching Dubai last September. She said she was in touch with four other Kashmiri women who were provided with fake certificates from nursing courses by different Kashmiri agents with the promise of health care jobs. Instead they, too, ended up as domestic helpers.
Jan said the agents got the women one-month tourist visas. “They do it deliberately so that we are dependent on them and cannot go back home,” she said. She also alleged that the agents blackmailed the women to try to prevent them from calling home or asking for help.
“They sell us to different agents and we have to live and work as per their wishes,” she said. “One of the girls I know was beaten to a pulp by an agent after she had gone to market by herself. It was a hellhole.”
On top of such abuse, the women typically must pay the agents a commission of 100,000 Indian rupees ($1,300), according to the women we spoke to.
When it comes to stamping out the problem, the 2021 “Trafficking in Persons Report” published by the U.S. State Department says the UAE is “making significant efforts to do so,” but still “does not fully meet” minimum standards.
“These efforts included expanding law enforcement training on trafficking, increasing oversight of domestic worker recruitment by expanding the number of public-private partnership ‘Tadbeer’ recruitment centers and closing all non-government-regulated recruitment agencies to prevent contract switching and conversion of tourist visas to work visas by unregulated agencies,” the report said. “It also expanded its efforts to raise awareness of labor exploitation and announced new pilot orientation programming for Gulf-bound workers from Africa.”
Yet the report found that the UAE did not prosecute any traffickers for forced labor and has not reported convicting any labor traffickers. “It also reported fewer convictions for sex trafficking crimes.”
The UAE itself says it “condemns, prohibits and penalizes human trafficking through a comprehensive action plan to fight it regionally and abroad.”
Most of the women who fall prey to traffickers are reluctant to even talk about their traumatic experiences, Rihana Rashid has filed a police complaint in Kashmir against the agents.
“We have received the complaint and the investigation has started,” said Imtiyaz Ismail Parray, a senior police superintendent in Kashmir.