The Saudi Arabia chronicles: Inside deadly search for greener pastures

Stella Nafula, Pauline Wachira, Miriam Hannah Njeri

Top row from left: Stella Nafula, Pauline Wachira, Miriam Hannah Njeri and Margaret Ruguru. Bottom row: Lucy Wanja, Lucy Mwanyae Kea, Beatrice Waruguru and Mercy Mbula.

Photo credit: Pool

On that bright Tuesday afternoon, September 6, Kenyans were united, brought together by feelings of patriotism and solidarity when one of their compatriots, Diana Chepkemoi, safely landed in Kenya after escaping the jaws of torture and harassment in Saudi Arabia.

But while she was engulfed in her mother’s long embrace, happy to be back home and on Kenyan soil, several other women her age, some even younger, made their way to catch the next flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to do the same work that she was running away from.

Just who will fetter the unfettered sector of labour migration that is proving to be difficult for Kenya? It is a yoke so heavily borne on the shoulders of domestic workers leaving the country en masse for the Middle East in search of greener pastures.

Had the innocent young women in white T-shirts branded with the name of the agency flying them to Saudi Arabia as their fellow Kenyans were rushing back home known what awaited them, they probably would have turned back.

But again, would they really? With pangs of hunger and poverty staring them starkly in their eyes – like most of those who went to the Middle East and came back with terror written all over their faces – chances that they would give up the promise of a better life and return to their deprived lives back at home were narrow.

The ‘Nation’ tracked down a few women who worked in Saudi Arabia and were lucky to be rescued alive.

Three women – Faith Jumwa, Joy Simiyu and Peris Maciko – had boarded the same flight that Ms Chepkemoi used to get back home.

Who is dealing with the plight of Saudi victims

On diverse dates last year, the trio left Kenya for the Gulf State in the hope of improving their lives and those of their families. A few weeks later, they regretted their move.

Ms Jumwa, 25, went to Saudi Arabia in December 2021 as a domestic helper.

Then one day, her boss told her she would kill her. She immediately called her agent in Kenya who had promised to help her as soon as she felt she was in danger. The threats escalated, but no help came.

She survived on flat bread three times a day. Chewing the hard bread was difficult, but as it was the only meal, she had to make do with it.

“One day, I ran away from my boss and was arrested by the police, who took me to Sakan (a holding facility) and I was eventually deported to Kenya,” she said.

It was in Sakan that she met the two other women – Ms Simiyu and Ms Maciko. These two had been taken to Saudi Arabia by the same agent, Susan.

Starved and talked to rudely, Ms Simiyu, 25, could not take it any longer and started looking for ways of coming back to Kenya when it became apparent that her boss’s wife intended to harm her.

This was apparent when one day, while she was doing her chores in the kitchen, her employer walked in and took a knife and started moving towards her.

Before this, the woman had told her that she would kill her.

“My instincts told me something was not right and I hurriedly left the kitchen and immediately told the boss that I wanted to leave,” she said.

The contacts she had been given for the Saudi Arabia agent’s office were not going through. Whenever she called, the line was dead. It took several days to find the correct number through her fellow African workers in the area and she eventually made the call.

The agents promised to come get her but it ended at that – an unfulfilled promise. Eventually, her boss decided to take her to the office, which took her to Sakan, where the agents promised they would find her another job in two days.

“Some people had stayed in that accommodation facility for more than seven months. I ended up staying in Sakan for over a month. Food was scarce, we ate once a day, we ate at 4pm,” Ms Simiyu said.

“There was no water, the water was salty, there was no soap, yet we were all ladies. The place was secluded and no matter how loud you screamed, no outsider could hear you.”

Alongside other “prisoners”, they approached the holding centre’s administrators and demanded they be deported to Kenya if there were no jobs. Their pleas were ignored and one day, they sneaked out of the facility and went to the streets.

“We called Susan (the agent) and told her we would die in Saudi Arabia and asked her to help us. She implored us to go back to Sakan and we would be paid money,” she said.

“We told her the situation there was tough, and she told us we were now on our own if we could not listen to her. She told us to sort ourselves out.”

They remained in the streets; the unforgiving heat overwhelmed them and they went back to their agent’s office in Riyadh. There, the agents told them they would take them to another holding facility, which they refer to as “accommodation”, but they refused.

While still arguing with the agents, police officers found them. They were taken to the nearest police station, where they recorded their statements and were eventually taken back to Sakan. She was among the lucky few who were deported to Kenya.

Ms Simiyu said Ugandans are usually given priority by the agents because Saudi citizens “know their president, Yoweri Museveni, does not tolerate any mistreatment of his citizens”.

“Why can’t the Kenyan government stand for its people. Why must we suffer when we have an embassy in Saudi Arabia? All those girls stranded there should be brought back home,” Ms Simiyu said.

For Ms Maciko, 35, her suffering was so great that she feels the government should prioritise repatriating Kenyans from the Gulf State right away.

Her case is striking. She was never taken to the employer listed in her contract but to another person who had been barred by the Saudi government from having foreign domestic workers over his previous poor record in dealing with the workers.

Ms Miriam Hannah Njeri who died under mysterious circumstances while at a deportation facility in Saudi Arabia.

Ms Miriam Hannah Njeri who died under mysterious circumstances while at a deportation facility in Saudi Arabia.

Photo credit: Pool

“I did not know why the government stopped him from having workers. I refused to work for him. It could be that he killed his previous house help,” Ms Maciko said.

“I tried calling Suzzy (Susan), but she did not pick up my calls. Eventually, I called the police and went to the [Kenyan] embassy. I was then taken to Sakan.”

She also revealed that two women that she called Florence and Trizza had been taken by Susan to help Kenyans in Saudi Arabia but are terrorising Kenyans there.

“They hide food and ask people to wash their dishes in the toilets. They even forced us to sleep with men there so that they could help us get jobs … yet they are our fellow Kenyans,” she said.

All three women said harsh economic conditions, unemployment and desperation made them go to Saudi Arabia. Shortly after the interview with the Nation, one of them video-called her friend at Sakan in Riyadh. Soon, countless other Kenyan women filled the phone's screen and their message was simple: “Tell the government to get us home! We are suffering here. We want to come home."

Whereas pleas urging young Kenyan women not to go to the Middle East increase, several others, blinded by the allure of riches and the possibility of improving their family’s welfare, would do anything to go there.

On September 6, the Transnational Crime Unit of the Kenya police rescued 18 women from an apartment block called Mavemba in the Sabaki area of Athi River, Machakos County.

Athi River Sub-county Police Commander Mary Gachie told the Nation that the women were to be illegally trafficked to Gulf states as slaves by rogue agents, who were arrested in the raid.

The women were taken to a safe house as the police sought more information from the suspects and use it to disband what they suspect to be a gang involved in trafficking women as slaves to the Middle East.

Even with the risks, Kenyans are still going to the Middle East for work, with their agents exploiting weak policies on labour migration and high employment.

Asked why many Kenyans still sought employment in these countries, Cotu secretary-general Francis Atwoli said employment was not the problem.

“Contrary to popular belief, labour migration is not essentially bad. However, the lack of a robust policy guiding labour migration and also the little involvement of government and unions make labour migration a dangerous affair,” he said.

“If anything, what we call labour migration today is what was called slave trade in yesteryears.”

These issues can be resolved through dialogue among Kenyans, trade unions and the State, he added.

As Kenyans aim their wrath at recruitment agents who take Kenyan women to work in Saudi Arabia, Lucia Wanjiku, who owns Al Lusiliah Recruitment Agency, believes the anger is misplaced and fuelled by uninformed claims.

The government is involved in the entire recruitment process, including issuing certificates of good conduct, scrutinising the identification documents of job seekers and confirming that their medical reports are genuine, she said.

Once this is done, the data is filled into what is called the Musaned system, which connects agents in Kenya and the government to the agents in Saudi Arabia and the government there. “Musaned is straightforward and known by the government and every girl going to Saudi Arabia must be known and registered in the system,” she said.

“The ministries of Foreign Affairs and Labour are involved in this system and all agents are registered in this system.”

Asked whether more women are still visiting her offices seeking jobs in foreign countries, she chuckled before answering.

“The business is going on well. The girls are still going, but it is getting a bit slower because when they hear dreadful stories, they become afraid … but our children are not going to murderers,” she said.

“The government cannot allow them to just go to be harmed. The government would never give out approvals if they knew the citizens would be harmed.”

For Vincent Ombati, who runs Vidaj Agencies Limited, calls to deregister all recruitment agents are unfair and should be scrutinised or an entire industry that earns Kenya foreign exchange would be ruined based on unfounded allegations.

He said Kenyans equipped with half-truths have been attacking recruitment agents when they are fully certified by the government.

For him, linking the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Labour is a key step in streamlining the issue of migrant labour.

Mr Ombati believes that by castigating agents and clamping down on their operations, the government could be unknowingly promoting the smuggling of people to foreign countries with which Kenya has no bilateral agreements.

“This will be very dangerous. I know there are people being smuggled to countries like Iraq, Kuwait and Syria, yet we have no agreement with such countries,” he said.

While the fire rages on whether the entire sector should be outlawed, information from the Central Bank of Kenya tells a different tale.

The latest data places Saudi Arabia as the fastest-growing source of remittances to Kenya, illustrating that despite several reported cases of human rights violations and abuse of labour laws, many Kenyans seeking work still flock to the kingdom.

Based on cash flows through formal channels, the CBK report shows that at least Sh22.65 billion ($187 million) was sent back home by Kenyans living in Saudi Arabia in the first eight months of the year. This placed the Gulf nation third after the United States (Sh188 billion) and the United Kingdom (Sh25.4 billion) as the top sources of remittances.

Haki Africa Executive Director Hussein Khaled expressed disgust at how Kenyans, and other Africans, were harassed in the countries where they went with the sole aim of making a living and uplifting themselves and their families from poverty.

If the welfare of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia does not improve, the Kenyan Embassy should be closed down, he said.

“What is happening in the Gulf is nothing short of modern-day slavery,” he said.

More than 100,000 Kenyans work in Saudi Arabia, Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau told MPs last week. He said the kingdom has many archaic systems and some of its citizens beat up and abuse their domestic helpers.

He said many of these Kenyans, including those who work in hotels and as taxi drivers, ‘have no problem’.

“So, we have to ask ourselves if we are exporting the right category of personnel and do they have the right capacity and training to understand that culture,” he said.

The legislators, while debating the 2022/23 budget, approved the appropriation of Sh374 million to build a safe house in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. This will provide refuge to Kenyan workers facing abuse.

Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Florence Bore said priority will be given to Saudi Arabia, where numerous distress cases have been reported.

“The national policy on labour migration has proposed the establishment of safe houses as temporary shelter for migrant workers in distress before the transition to another employment or repatriation,” said Ms Bore.

Despite the assurances, many women who have safely returned to Kenya, sometimes alongside caskets carrying their dead compatriots, want nothing to do with Saudi Arabia.

“To women who want to go there, I plead with you, there are no jobs in Saudi Arabia now. I would rather you work here, earn your ten shillings and be content with it,” Ms Maciko said.

For the families of Beatrice Waruguru who lost her life in May 2021, Mercy Mbula (October), Lucy Kea (October), Stella Nafula (February), Pauline Wachira (August), Miriam Njeri (August) and Margaret Ruguru (December 2021), these deaths are painful reminder that the pursuit of greener pastures can turn an expected happy ending into a lifetime of sorrows, as they mourn the loss of their loved ones.

Sadly, the reality, as revealed by security personnel at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, is bleak.

“No matter how much you highlight stories of suffering of Kenyans in the Middle East, the truth is we see girls here every day still heading to the same Saudi Arabia,” one guard told the Nation.

“In fact, as we speak, I am sure many of them are on their way to Riyadh and all those other countries there.”

One wonders, just when will all this end?

Faith Jumwa,Peris Macik

From left: Faith Jumwa,Peris Maciko and Joy Simiyu at Haki Africa offices in Nairobi on September 7,2022.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group