DUBAI (Reuters) - Aysha sold her wedding gold to pay traffickers $200 to find her and a cousin jobs in Dubai. A world away from her village in Uzbekistan, she was forced to work in a disco and expected to offer sex.
Beaten by her Uzbek boss when she shooed prospective clients away, she and her cousin fled and hid in airport toilets for two days, surviving on tap water.
Aysha’s story reveals the dark underbelly of glitzy, fast-paced Dubai, the Gulf Arab trade and tourism hub. It also highlights a problem that bedevils many states in the region and is a bone of contention with their close ally the United States.
The 26-year-old, who only identified herself as Aysha for fear the traffickers would hurt her family, supports her son and sick mother back home.
“Some girls like going to discos but I am Muslim, I cannot go to places where people dance and drink let alone work there,” she said at the shelter in Dubai where she now lives.
Tens of thousands of people arrive in Dubai and neighboring states each year, seeking a better life in a region booming on record oil revenues. But the wealth on show in Dubai’s sprawling shopping malls, skyscrapers and smart restaurants attracts traffickers too.
Foreign workers and expatriates with different lifestyles and cultures make up over 80 percent of the more than 4 million population in the United Arab Emirates, a Muslim country.
Prostitution, even adultery, are illegal yet bars abound where women are available for sex.
In a 2007 report, the U.S. State Department accused its Gulf Arab allies of being among the worst offenders in failing to prevent people from being sold into sex and servitude.
It put the UAE on “Tier 2 Watch List” for not doing enough but Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar joined Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan on a list of 16 states subject to possible sanctions.
In 2006, the UAE — a wealthy seven-member federation including Abu Dhabi and Dubai — passed the Arab world’s first law aimed specifically at combating the trade in humans, with penalties ranging from five years to life in jail.
Last month, the nearby Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, which has a free trade pact with the United States, issued its own law.
“It is not a stigma on the UAE that human trafficking takes place because many prosperous, attractive places to live have this problem,” said Anwar Gargash, a minister who heads a committee set up to coordinate efforts to implement the law.
“The stigma is if we do nothing about it,” he said. “We have done a lot ... but we have a long way to go.”
Trafficking is hard to measure but the United Nations says a revolution in affordable transport and instant communication has vastly increased it over the past decade.
It estimates annual profits from human trafficking at more than $30 billion, with 2.5 million people trapped in forced labour, including sexual exploitation, in forced marriages, or pushed to provide body parts for black market trade in organs.
A relatively small proportion of forced labour — 260,000 people — takes place in the Middle East and North Africa but most of it — 230,000 people — is a result of trafficking, the International Labour Organisation said in a 2005 report.
Aysha’s case puts a face on the figures.
She was sitting outside her home in Uzbekistan when she was approached by a woman who showed her pictures of Dubai and promised her a job as a waitress.
When she and her cousin arrived in Dubai, their hair was cut, their eyebrows plucked and they were given skimpy clothes to wear. They were locked up in an apartment with four other girls who were made to work as prostitutes.
On day two, Aysha and her cousin escaped from the disco when their boss had to go out on an urgent errand. They flagged down a taxi, but the only English word they knew was airport.
They lived in the airport toilets for two days before being found and sent to the Uzbek consulate, which sent them to the shelter.
“The other girls wanted to run away too but they were too afraid. I think they tried before but were caught,” Aysha said.
The UAE took part in the UN’s global conference on human trafficking in Vienna this month, and donated $15 million last year to support efforts to fight human trafficking.
But it has faced logistical and cultural problems common to many countries in trying to stop trafficking.
One difficulty is training police officers from traditional societies to see prostitutes as victims or to deal sensitively with rape or abuse. Victims of trafficking are often caught and punished while traffickers escape.
Gargash said police were being trained to investigate for the involvement of human trafficking webs in prostitution cases.
“Women and children are often the victims in these cases and we want the police to have victim sensitivity,” he said.
Another issue is reaching out to source nations.
“This is a transnational crime. It is impossible to combat it only on a national basis. We need partnerships with source countries ... We are just delving into this area,” Gargash said.
Sharla Musabih runs Dubai’s City of Hope shelter, the first of its kind in the Gulf and now home to the two young women from Uzbekistan. She will inaugurate a shelter in Ethiopia this month to help stop the trafficking at source.
An American who married an Emirati and moved to Dubai in 1984, Musabih says there has been some progress in cracking down on trafficking for sex but more needs to be done.
“I have dealt with over 400 cases in the past six months, cases of everything from trafficking to maid abuse, domestic violence or labour abuse,” she said. “That situation (trafficking for sex) has improved immensely. I used to see many. Now I have two girls here and the attempt did not work.”
Aysha and her cousin seemed at ease in Musabih’s shelter. They giggled and called Musabih “mama,” communicating through signals or through a fellow Uzbek woman who spoke English.
“They want to come back,” the woman said. “In my country, pay is bad, $50 a month when a kilo of meat costs $5 ... They say ‘I want to go home, arrange a real job and come back’.”
Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile