The last three Bhutanese girls in Iraq will be coming to Bhutan on 4th January.
This will complete the biggest and most audacious rescue of Bhutanese citizens in distress in a foreign land.
The problem first cropped up from 2019 and even before when there were petitions, news and requests from Bhutanese girls in Iraq asking for help or to be rescued.
The common theme in many of these petitions and stories were that they had either been duped into coming into Iraq when they thought they were heading to another country, or that the conditions there were nightmarish compared to the rosy picture that they had been given to believe.
From the information available in petitions and communications sent to the government it was clear that the girls had essentially been smuggled there.
With an unstable law and order situation and a male dominated patriarchal society there were cases of various shades of both physical and sexual abuse.
An official said that based on appeal letters the most concerning were reports of sexual harassment.
He said that there were cases of people being forced to work 17 to 18 hours a day, beatings, scolding and other hardships. The women also did not have the option of leaving the employer or the country.
They were often asked to refund the fees of up to USD 9,000 when they wanted to leave. Money which the women never saw or got but had been pocked by the local agent.
There were even cases where the owners literally had the power of life and death over Bhutanese women.
This operated in a legalized but very regressive and internationally criticized Kafala system in the middle east under which a sponsor pays a fee (USD 4,000 to USD 9,000) to a labour agent for a worker and the sponsor takes complete control of that worker to the extent that they are not even allowed to stay on their own.
The sponsor also takes their passport which means that the worker cannot even leave the country without their approval and if they abscond then a criminal case can be filed against the worker.
In short, Bhutanese workers under the Kafala system were as good as indentured labourers or slaves working in Iraq.
As news of the plight of these women filtered into Bhutan, His Majesty The King was deeply concerned about the situation and issued a Royal Command in early 2020.
The Royal Command asked for every effort and resource to bring these Bhutanese women safely home. A Joint Task Force cutting across agencies was set up to coordinate efforts to safely return all these Bhutanese home.
The Task Force and the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Kuwait, faced a series of challenges in undertaking the rescue effort.
The first was that Iraq was just recovering from a major external and civil conflict, and it was a restive and chaotic place with several power centers.
Another issue was that some of these people having Bhutanese maids were well connected and affluent with connections going to the local police and some even in the Interior Ministry.
Around 106 of the women were rescued from the autonomous Kurdistan region while around 55 were rescued from Baghdad.
The Bhutanese side had a relatively easier time rescuing the women in the Kurdistan autonomous region which was more stable and thus cooperative, but the going was much tougher in the capital, Baghdad.
Another challenge was that these were not normal times with COVID-19 and so getting in and getting them out also was an internationally difficult operation.
Here the Royal Command was very important as there was no shortage of resources in getting the job done.
The Royal Command and the task force formed from it also was a big help in solving various coordination issues that otherwise came up between the various agencies. An important lesson learnt from this was the need for better coordination among agencies to move things faster.
A challenge for the future now is that while the women are rescued the question remains on what can be done to prevent the same situation from recurring again.
This is because while the rescue was being conducted Bhutanese officials, to their surprise, found that the women had not landed up in Iraq due to some distant foreign agents or Sheikhs abusing them, but mainly due to the manipulation of local Bhutanese agents and ‘Madams’ who had lured them there promising them good money and the sky.
In certain cases, Bhutanese women had left better paying jobs here in Bhutan and gone there to get equivalent or even lower wages in an abusive system.
While many women had left Bhutan in the hopes of making more money to support their families back home, some women were not even getting around USD 300 a month.
Quite a few of the women had not even been to Thimphu and were from remote areas and suddenly landed up in Iraq. Many of the women were from mainly humble backgrounds and quite a few were even uneducated.
Most had no idea at all that they were heading to Iraq. They were told that they would be heading to Dubai or to Turkey. They had also been given the impression that they would be doing normal work hours with decent pay but ended up working as poorly paid and abused maids in private houses. Some of the women did not even know that they were in Iraq.
There was obvious trafficking of Bhutanese here by Bhutanese exploiting even legal loopholes or the absence of certain laws. It has been learnt that the National Council is working on closing these loopholes and and making the laws more stringent on trafficking.
It has been learnt that the Bhutan representative was a local official named Dr Ahmed originally from the Kurdistan autonomous region but based in Iraq who provided a lot of help in rescuing the girls.
A difficult first task was in locating the Bhutanese women and then contacting them and their employers.
In many of the cases help from local authorities in Iraq, the International Organization for Migration, Embassies of friendly nations, NGOs and individuals, contributed greatly in the rescue efforts.
One of the challenges faced by the rescue team was that given the legal status of the Kafala system the owners demanded huge sums as compensation to release the women. There were negotiations done and original rates were brought down but millions had to be paid.
In a few particularly difficult and dangerous cases the women had to be rescued from tricky situations and new passports issued.
In Bhutan the RBP has already initiated action against the agents who duped the women into going into Iraq with both arrests and prosecution. Many of these agents are illegal in the first place.
In order to avoid a repeat of Bhutanese women being duped again the Foreign Ministry has informed all Middle-East embassies in Delhi that if any Bhutanese woman comes to them applying for a visa then they should get it authenticated with the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi.
On September 20th a special relief Drukair flight to Dubai brought home 132 women evacuated from Iraq but there were still around 30 more who were subsequently tracked and rescued.
During quarantine, the women received medical attention and counselling, as well as help to reunite with their families, and access to The Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu.
The rescued women expressed at the time great relief to be back home, and offered their heartfelt gratitude for His Majesty’s compassion and concern for every Bhutanese citizen in the world.
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