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Malawi Struggles To Repatriate Alleged Abused Girls in Oman

FILE - A suspected victim of human trafficking to India who returned to Kenya with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is seen in Nairobi, Kenya August 4, 2020.

BLANTYRE — Malawi says it is facing challenges to repatriate about 60 women trafficked in Oman who have complained of working under deplorable and slave-like conditions. The women raised alarm last year through social media posts saying they were facing physical and sexual and emotional abuses from their employers.

Malawi has no diplomatic relations with Oman, and its closest connection with Oman is its embassy in Kuwait.

John Kabaghe, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Malawi, told VOA this week that the government concluded its fact finding mission concerning the complaints the trafficked girls raised in February, but efforts to send a delegation to Oman to start the repatriation process have been frustrated.

“The delegation that was supposed to go to Oman suddenly found themselves not being given visas," he said. "This has been the issue that has now delayed the process of bringing the women back home.”

However, Kabaghe said the Malawi government is exploring some ways of bringing the women home.

These include working with non-government organizations based in Oman to help repatriate them.

“As we are speaking right now about 21 Malawian women have come back from Oman," he said. " Last week we received about six women. Unfortunately, we are receiving reports that there are still some other women who are leaving Malawi to the very same place and finding themselves in exactly the same challenges that others have found themselves in.”

Many Malawians have long been recruited by middlemen with the promise of finding better jobs in countries such as Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

However, some have ended in jobs they were never promised and working under unheard of conditions.

For example, in a Facebook post that went viral last year, a Malawian woman working in Oman alleged that she'd suffered abuses such as rape, torture and poor pay. She compared her situation in Oman to that of slavery.

A local daily newspaper in Malawi reported in June this year that a 23-year old Malawian working in Oman had died after her employer dumped and abandoned her at a private hospital. Her body was later buried in Malawi.

There has been no comment from authorities in Oman on the matter.

However, a 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report on Oman published by the U.S. Department of State said Oman is taking measures to eliminate trafficking.

These include initiating prosecutions of alleged labor traffickers, conviction of sex traffickers and upgrading of its specialized anti-trafficking police unit to increase capacity to investigate trafficking cases.

However, the report said the Oman government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. It said Oman investigated and prosecuted fewer alleged traffickers overall compared with previous years and did not convict any traffickers of the forced labor of migrant workers — the largest trafficking problem in Oman — for the fifth consecutive year.

Despite the challenges Malawi is facing in repatriating the women, human rights organizations have been trying to compliment government efforts toward rescuing the women.

For example, in February, the local NGO, the Center for Democracy and Economic Development Initiative, started a rescue campaign aimed at raising about U$2,400 for the release of 60 stranded women.

Sylvester Namiwa, the executive director of the NGO, said “having listened and watched clips of heart-breaking stories coming from Oman, to an extent that they were surviving on two slices of bread and a bottle of water, used as sex toys, we thought we need to do something. But then, we never succeeded.

"You are aware that the moment we launched the initiative, it was the same time that the devastating Cyclone Freddy hit this country. So, the attention shifted ..."

Emma Kaliya, the executive director for the Malawi Human Rights Resource Center, says she is aware that some Malawians leave for other countries because of economic problems many people are facing.

“What I can say is that they need to do a thorough assessment before they travel — so that they are assured of their stay there," she said. "Unlike when you just join, you don’t know who is who — who is picking you there, who is going to employ you, and if they start mistreating you, it will become a problem.”

However, Kabaghe told VOA that the Malawi government has budgeted about $350, 000 to bring the women home — though its delegation has been denied access to enter Oman to kick start state funded repatriation. It is also seeking assistance from governments and international partners to help fast track repatriation of all stranded women.