Sold as slaves, tortured in the Middle East: The human trafficking nexus in Hyderabad

Women are identified in Hyderabad, they get their visas in Mumbai, then are taken to Dubai, and sent to other places from there – the nexus functions like a well-oiled machine.
Sold as slaves, tortured in the Middle East: The human trafficking nexus in Hyderabad
Sold as slaves, tortured in the Middle East: The human trafficking nexus in Hyderabad
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It has been nine months since Zainab Begum, a resident of Kalapathar in Hyderabad's old city area, came back home. "The memory is fresh in my mind. I still struggle to swallow solid food and the medical treatment is not cheap," she says with teary eyes, quickly pulling herself together to avoid breaking down in front of this reporter.  

Last year, Zainab drank an entire bottle of toilet cleaner, in an attempt to kill herself, as she was being tortured by her employer in Ha'il, a city in Saudi Arabia.

Zainab, a mother of two, says she was lured by an agent with false promises that she could earn twice the amount that she made as an attendant at a local hospital. Soon, she found herself in the middle of a massive human trafficking nexus that begins in the Old City.

"He said that I just had to take care of one old lady and there would be no workload. They would pay me 1,200 Saudi Riyal, which was close to Rs 20,000. He also said that I could frequently visit Mecca for pilgrimages," Zainab narrates.

Zainab's case is far from unique as many women in the city’s slums have similar tales to tell.

The nexus

As one listens to several women relive their tales, a clear pattern emerges. Agents, mostly men, are on the lookout for vulnerable women. This could include widows, women with alcoholic husbands, women with pending loans or even medical ailments.

These agents then recruit 'sub-agents', mostly women, whose job it is to convince the identified lady to hand over her documents and travel to the Middle East.

Government documents are prepared, including Aadhar cards, Voter ID cards, passports and a visa is issued, generally in Mumbai. From Mumbai, the women are flown to Dubai, where the immigration process is completed, before they are transported to their real destination.

All the women are lured by the promise of easy money, only to realise once they reach their destination, that they have been 'sold off' as nothing more than domestic slaves. The entire trafficking ring involves both foreign nationals and Indians living in Hyderabad and abroad.

Tales of torture

In Zainab's case, she was taken from Hyderabad to Bahrain, before being flown to Dubai and then transported to Ha'il.

"The first day, they treated me well and even let me speak to my children. From the second day, they started their torture. Instead of one old lady to take care of, I found eight adults and 10 children living in a duplex. I used to wake up at 4 am and cook, sweep and clean, and finish work only at midnight. They paid me for one month and that was it," she says.

When she demanded her salary for the second month, Zainab was informed that she had been bought for Rs 4 lakh and she could forget any plans she had to return to India.

"After five months of threatening to kill me and beating me, they sold me to another house for 20,000 Saudi Riyals. There, the situation was even worse. The little food I was getting was barely enough," Zainab says.

"I felt that they were going to kill me and it was better to kill myself instead. So I drank an entire bottle of phenyl in front of them. They didn't even bother taking me to the hospital. I fell unconscious and started vomiting blood. They didn't even flinch as they watched me," she narrates.

Following this, Zainab claims that she was locked up in a room for around 15 days and only given two tablets everyday. When she recovered slightly, she was asked to get back to work.

"For five months I didn't eat. I had forgotten how to swallow. Blood was continuously dripping from my nose and mouth. I bore the torture hoping that I would see my kids again," she narrates, her voice shaking.

Fortunately for her, she managed to leave the house with her diary of contacts one day, on the pretext of throwing garbage and met a Bangladeshi man, who called her children and informed them about what happened.

Following this, Zainab's children immediately filed a complaint with the Kalapathar police station and the Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

Embassy officials then managed to contact Zainab and after an investigation, found that her visa was issued in Mumbai. Despite the reassuring phone call, Zainab said that she suffered for another nine months, before the embassy was able to extradite her.

"I didn't know if they would send me or my dead body. I returned like a skeleton. I am getting better slowly, after treatment at Osmania General Hospital (OGH). I even have an operation coming up in six months," she says.

"They promised that I could go for Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, and I was happy. Neither of the two happened. They only tortured me and thrashed me. They used to beat me with rods everywhere. No women should trust these agents and go. It is very difficult to come back," she adds, before finally letting go and breaking down.

Zainab when she returned

The case of 29-year-old Iliyas Begum, who lives in Shaheen Nagar is similar, if not worse.

Like Zainab, she too was promised a salary of Rs 20,000 by an agent who lived in Barkas. She was told that it was an Indian family and all she had to do was take care of two children.

"An agent met me in 2016 and promised to send me to Dubai on the job of a 'khadama' (housemaid). My husband was an auto driver and he had some health issues. I also wanted to save up some money to educate my daughter, so I agreed. Instead, once I reached there, they took me to Riyadh. There, I met the kafeel (sponsor), who took me to a massive house and said that I had been sold off for Rs 2 lakh," Iliyas says.

It was then that Iliyas realised that she was trapped. As she had a SIM card that only worked in Dubai, she had no way of even contacting her husband to inform him about what had happened.

"I was made to work all day...There was one more woman like me. Soon after I reached, the month of Ramzan started and I had to work all night. I fell sick and I was given tablets that made me drowsy. When I dozed off, I was rudely woken up with a thick whip. I still have those bruises on my body," she narrates.

Somehow, Iliyas managed to buy another SIM card and tell her husband what happened. Despite this, she was tortured for another two months as she was barely given any food and often slept in the bathroom.

In the third month, she was shifted to another household, which mostly consisted of men.

"They locked me up in the room one night and they were talking about how they would rape me. A confrontation followed and I was pushed out from the second floor of the building and I broke both my legs," Iliyas said.

Almost all bones in both her legs broken, Iliyas spent the next three months availing treatment at Saudi German Hospital, before she was brought back to India in a wheelchair.

Iliyas Begum

"It has been more than two years and she still can't walk properly without my help. I carry her around wherever she needs to go. We owned an auto, which we had to sell off to pay medical bills. We are now in debt and even our house was locked up because we failed to pay rent. An acquaintance is letting us stay in this one-roomed house till we are able to manage," explains, Mohammed Khan, Iliyas' husband.  

Despite this, Zainab and Iliyas were fortunate enough to return alive, unlike some others.

Baseena and Mohammad Shabbir stay in a one-room house in Uppal, that barely has enough space for both of them. Baseena's mother, 41-year-old Shaheen Begum, died in August this year after she was hired as a housemaid in Riyadh.

However, family members, who just want to see Shaheen's body, have alleged that they were kept in the dark for more than a week, before they were informed of her death.

"She was a housemaid here and she was in a debt. She saw some women travelling to Middle Eastern countries and made some enquiries. Two agents from Amberpet told her that she would be paid Rs 20,000 and she just had to take care of a few children. In December 2016, she was taken to Dubai and then to Saudi, where she realised that she also had to do all the household work," Baseena says.

Shaheen took the job after her husband's sudden demise, with the hopes that she would save up enough money for her youngest daughter's marriage. However, she allegedly received only Rs 16,000 per month and was informed that she had been 'sold' for Rs 3 lakh.

"Her health started deteriorating and she used to call us and cry all the time that she was being threatened and harassed. They barely fed her and she survived on liquids. Everyone in the family there would take turns to beat her and refused to hear her pleas to return to India," Baseena says.

"I spoke to her on August 4 for the last time and she said that she was doubtful if she would see us ever again. They hadn't even paid her for two months and we were hoping that she would be sent back. Instead, we received a call on August 13, saying that she was dead. The kafeel refused to answer further questions," she adds.


Since then, Baseena and her husband have been running from pillar to post and have even filed a police complaint, besides appealing to the Indian Embassy, to ensure that Shaheen's body is returned.  

Legal loopholes

India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has laid down several strict guidelines for citizens who wish to travel to foreign countries for work.

For example, the 'khadama' visa (a visa for domestic help) has been banned for a few years now.

"On the recommendations of the National Commission for Women, a ban was imposed on grant of emigration clearance to women below the age of thirty (30) years for all kind of employment in any ECR (Emigration Check Required) country," the MEA has stated on its website.

This is where agents come in and exploit loopholes.

Close to the Dabeerpura flyover is the office of Amjed Ullah Khan from the Majlis Bachao Tehreek (MBT). For the past few years, Khan has been working extensively on ensuring that many women, trapped by the human trafficking nexus, are reunited with their families.

"Many such cases are being reported from slums in the old city like Vattepally, Fatima Nagar, Ghouse Nagar, Bandlaguda, Balapur, Tolichowki, etc. This is a human trafficking system that relies on women who come from absolute poverty. It is a well-connected gang," Khan says.

If a khadama is needed anywhere in these Gulf countries, whether it is in Oman, Dubai or Qatar, agencies in Riyadh are approached and an 'order' is placed, Khan says.

"If they go through the proper channel, it is very expensive for employers to enroll the women as there are a lot of pre-conditions. So instead, they get the women a 90-day 'long vacation' visa, which states that the passport holder can return if she finds the work unsuitable. The kafeel or the agency pays Rs 3 lakh for this. The agents in Riyadh, Mumbai and Hyderabad get Rs 1 lakh each," Khan says.    

While the younger women are lured under promises of being hired as beauticians, the older women are usually told they have to work as nurses.

"Once the women reach there, the kafeel informs them that he has already paid Rs 3 lakh for them. In case, a recruitment agency has brought them to Saudi, the women are kept in the office, which itself usually has unhygienic conditions. Generally, they stay in a massive cellar with 50 beds and one common bathroom, and the agency leases the women out for a few days to certain households, depending on the work," Khan says.

"After 90 days, an 'Iqama' visa is issued to the woman. They take her somewhere near the border, exit the country and then just enter it again, making the visa valid. Now, the woman is not eligible for medical treatment and they snatch away their phone. If you are fortunate to be employed in a city, you can survive. If you get employment in a remote town, then extradition is far more difficult," he adds.

Besides physically and sexual assaulting the women, the employers also do not let them step out of the house. If the women manage to run away, a case of theft is filed and the victim often spends months in jail before she is rescued.

However, Amjed says that the MEA under Union Minister Sushma Swaraj has been proactive in dealing with such cases, as each case is assigned a specific number and the status can be monitored online. Embassies also fund tickets for the return of the victims.

Police and government intervention

Though police officers like Rachakonda Commissioner Mahesh Bhagwat and South Zone DCP V Satyanarayana have been working keenly on such cases, a lot of work is yet to be done as some victims allege that lower-level police officers often try to ‘settle’ cases between the agent and the families.

Many also complain that cases are registered only after they approach senior officers, following which the system is able to deal with the complaint swiftly.

Speaking to TNM, Falaknuma ACP Syed Fiaz says, “We have been noticing many such cases and it is mainly a socio-economic problem. Many women, reeling under poverty and illiteracy, take up the offer because they want to eke out a living. They are not in a position to be aware and find out if what they are doing is within the framework of the law. They are not in a position to confirm the veracity of the agents.”  

The ACP says that many agents continue their activities, despite not having the necessary licenses.

“When such cases come to light, we book agents under Section 9 and 10 of the Protector of Emigrants (POE) Act. We also book cases of cheating under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and in some cases, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act is also invoked,” Syed adds.

“Even though so many cases have been reported in Hyderabad, there is not much change on the ground. While the police can geotag rowdy sheeters and communal elements, why not do the same for these agents? I have nearly 200 ongoing cases,” Khan says.

The MBT leader also says that Muslim leaders must come forward, as it is a problem among their own community.

“When I started doing this, some people said that I was defaming Hyderabad. More than 90% of the victims are Muslims and we must accept this. This is the truth. It is worse than cancer and we have a responsibility to weed it out. We must ask community elders to speak during Friday sermons and the political leadership should also come forward. Additionally, the state government can also work at providing some form of help to the women who have returned and are looking to rebuild their lives,” Khan adds.              

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