Royal Bhutan Police (RBP), Department of Law and Order (DLO), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), and Department of Immigration (DoI) collaborated to rescue 163 Bhutanese women, some as young as 21 to as old as 50 years, in 7 batches from Iraq after a Royal Command.
The first batch was rescued on 9 April 2020 while the 7th batch was rescued on 1 February 2021. 90 percent of the rescued women worked as housemaids and a few of them worked in hotels and parlors.
There is only one graduate woman amongst them, and the rest of the women are semi literate to illiterate. All of them face financial instability as they come from broken homes, with low paying jobs, and some of them are divorcees. All of them wanted to explore better job prospects and were promised decent jobs with handsome pay in Iraq.
However, the reality was a harrowing experience for them, as most of them were duped, enslaved and tortured. Some of the women were sexually harassed.
After their rescue, various agencies have played vital roles in the rehabilitation and aftercare of the traumatized women.
RENEW and NCWC provided them the counseling starting from the quarantine facility itself, along with various skills training programs for employment opportunities.
Likewise, the Ministry of Health provided them with medical assistance and Ministry of Labour and Human Resources helped in supporting various skills training programs. RBP and DLO ensured their safety and investigated the case.
Meanwhile, Lt. Colonel Sisir Chhetri from RBP said that when the case was handed over to police on 8 January 2020, just 30 women were supposed to be held in Iraq. However, during the investigation, they found out that there were around 160 women who were looking for help.
“Everything has to be routed through the MoFA which caused delay, whereby the women were sent from one place to another, which caused much difficulty in locating them. This was one challenge that we encountered,” he said.
There were times when some of the women were in much distress, but nothing could be done to rescue them immediately as Bhutan does not have a bilateral relation with Iraq, he added.
Such delays caused many of the women to lose trust, and it was challenging to rebuild their trust and confidence. Time difference was another challenge, he said.
The women under immediate threat were provided help and protection, he said, adding that they were cautious in seeing that none of the women’s lives were endangered.
“As far as we are concerned, there are no (Bhutanese) women in Iraq. However, we got information saying there are two, but we couldn’t get in touch with them. We also suspect that there are 7 women in Oman,” he added.
Human trafficking is an organized crime and it is difficult to arrest the handlers, especially those operating outside Bhutan involved in transporting the women.
RBP has a list of 31 suspected perpetrators, for now, of which 29 are female. A few of the suspects are under detention, while some of them have been released on bail. One of the suspects is involved in Mumbai human trafficking case as well.
Although the case investigation is nearly complete, it will take some time to charge sheet the cases to the court for prosecution due to the high number of suspects, Lt. Colonel Sisir Chhetri said.
Dr Norbu from the Forensic Department, JDWNRH shared that many of the rescued victims had several health issues. Some of them tested positive for COVID-19, some had low hp anemia, skin issues, mental and physical issues.
“Since they were under quarantine, all the issues were resolved online depending upon their quarantine. And whoever needed the medications, it was supplied to their quarantine facilities. Antidepressants were also supplied to a few of the women,” he added.
Everyone had to undergo medical examination after 21-day quarantine, and in due process, it was learnt that some women had a history of physical abuse and some needed psychiatric referral, he added.
He said, “Some of them had complained of sexual abuse, however, it seems to have happened long ago and it was difficult to conclude anything on this. No history of STIs was discovered and no serious health issues were reported.”
MoLHR Minister, Ugyen Dorji, said that the ministry partners with RENEW and provides various training programs to most of the women rescued from Iraq.
Lyonpo said, “We design a program to accommodate everyone but due to budget and capacity constraints, we are not able to provide the skills training program to all people who are interested.”
As for screening employment agencies, Lyonpo said that the ministry has overseas rules and regulations, under which any unlicensed agencies sending people illegally would be fined and warned.
“As and when people come to us with a complaint, we, in coordination with other agencies, try to sort out the issues, and accordingly we penalize them,” he added. The overseas program is put at halt due to obvious reasons.
He said, “Despite numerous advertisement and awareness programs on overseas employment, and for that matter on unlicensed agencies, the people go abroad due to good incentive, better opportunities, curiosity and to gain exposure, and other reasons.”
An official from NCWC said that they could contact a few women in Iraq through BAOWE. After which they referred the case to RBP and DLO. The only thing NCWC could do with the women was to give them the counseling, he said.
He said, “The support we could provide to those women is a psychosocial support. We started our counseling services while in quarantine though phone calls and social media.”
A preliminary assessment on the situation was done by NCWC and shared with DLO and RBP, so as to help them in their investigation. However, he said that there were a few women who failed to cooperate despite several tries, and the women were reported to RBP.
NCWC struggled to provide counseling services to more than 100 women seeking their help, he said, as there were not enough counselors, however, other agencies helped.
He said, “Once they are out from the quarantine, we have registered them for the Druk Gyalpo’s Kidu support. We also have provided those with no homes with shelter. The women who live in far flung area and along the southern belt are also provided with shelter, as they all have had to undergo medical examination and assessment.”
NCWC in collaboration with RENEW provided various training programs. They have trained 12 women in domestic care program so that they can be standardized and get work as domestic helpers within the country.
“Though we share with them the information on vacancies, they do not show interest. Moreover, they have no interest in working under BBP program which is the best opportunity to earn,” he added.
NCWC aims to get the women employed, but many of them want to start business in Thimphu, which is hard to do as there is a limited financial support and sustainability issue.
“They do not want to do agriculture business as well but there is very less chance of even getting a loan for businesses,” he added.
A counselor from RENEW said that they have provided the victims with the psychosocial support, counseling, livelihood skills trainings and shelters. “When we got connected to them they were distressed, with so much on their mind,” she said.
RENEW provided shelter support for 25 rescued women. To ensure that they do not go under stress, livelihood skills training were provided.
19 of the rescued women were trained in floriculture, 2 were trained in tailoring, 3 learned to bake, and just one was trained to weave. She said that although most of the women were interested to train in baking, however, they couldn’t give them the opportunity due to the lack of resources. They have also provided home care and hospitality training to 12 women.
She said, “The first 21 days were challenging for us as everything has to be done through phone calls and voice messages. So it was difficult to know the actual issues faced by the women. There were a few women who had health issues. However, we managed to resolve it with a support from the forensic department, JDWNRH.”
Meanwhile, some of the women have found jobs, and some are still waiting to be employed.