• Nigerian teenager sold into slavery by compatriot recalls ugly experience in Saudi Arabia

  • Says they told me lucrative job was waiting for me

  • Alleges NAPTIP ignored her SOS call, Nigerian embassy officials extorted her

Lasubomi Oladipupo, (not real name) an indigene of Oyo State, was energetic, boisterous, spirited, and naive when he left the shores of Nigeria for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a 17-year-old. Twenty-five months later, she is back into the country as a 20-year-old, ragged, disoriented, depressed and enamoured with bitterness.

“I would have died,” was all that the totally crushed returnee could muster at first.

Olasubomi had run away from her employers and roamed the streets of Jeddah for close to three months before a ‘good Samaritan’ paid her way out of the hellish Saudi arena.

In an encounter with our correspondent, the National Diploma (ND) holder searched the floor in between her feet for minutes, rummaging the rough times she weathered for more than two years before raising her face to speak.

Her face is ragged thin, her frame wrinkly. Her skin looked like a weather-beaten leather needing decent polishing to make it shine again. She looked much older than her age.

“If you had seen me when I got back, you would have cried for me,” she lamented.

The alumni of The Polytechnic Ibadan had returned home on April 20, 2022 but did not step out of her parents’ house for four weeks because of her looks.

She said: “I was as pale as a ghost. I lost considerable weight because of stress.

“I was working 20 hours non-stop with little to eat. I had never worked so hard in my life.

“When my parents saw me, they burst into tears because of the way looked. I saw hell.”

Olasubomi has walked through the shadow of death, passed through the jaws of the lion and experienced debased human cruelty.

“It was like walking through hell,” she said.

“They all told me a white-collar job was waiting for me in Saudi.”

Overwhelmed with anger, the Diploma in Business Administration holder said everyone lied to her. From the sister next door that lured her into it and her parents who encouraged her and paid for the trip to the travel agent that sold her into modern slavery, the Saudi company and family that maltreated and molested her, the Saudi Immigration and Police that threw her into the rugged street, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) that ignored her SOS message, the Nigerian Embassy in Jeddah that extorted her and the entire Nigerian system that failed to protect her.

In a voice laden with emotion, she recounted her story which began in early 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

She had just rounded off her diploma programme when one of her neighbours, a well-known and well travelled lady, approached her with what she called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in the gulf country.

She said: “It was during the pandemic lockdown when a lady I look up to in my area visited our house and informed my parents that there was an opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia.

“She said she was there herself for three years and worked in an office.

“My parents were eager to let me go there to try my luck.

“She said there was a travel agent in Abuja who would facilitate the trip within a short time.

“I went to Abuja and was introduced to Anas Chukwa, a travel agent.

“He asked me to pay a million naira plus for the processing of the visa, a one-way ticket to Saudi Arabia, plus his own fee.

“Since we could not pay the money at once, he agreed to collect it in instalments.

“As soon as he got his money, he started the processing and the visa was out in about five weeks.

“When I was doing my passport, he instructed me to inflate my age from 17 years to 22.” An addition of five years.

She said the agent also told her that lucrative white-collar jobs awaited her.

Unknown to her, the neighbour is one of the many recruiting agents working for an organised human trafficking company.  She looks out for naive parents and their wards to sell mouth-offering offers of high-paying jobs in the Gulf region.

Once, their victims are lured in, they are handed Company’s representative-often times, a travel agent, or someone in the travels business, in the big cities. She collects her commission and moves on to the next prey.

Victim arrives in Saudi Arabia

Olasubomi landed at King Fahd International Airport Dammam, on March 3, 2020 and was promptly picked up by a driver that was waiting for her, and marched into a waiting bus.

“In the bus, I saw other officials. They looked like Arabs but I could not place their nationalities at first. It was later that I learned that they are Saudis Arabians and Pakistanis.

“About a dozen other girls from Pakistan, India, and other African countries were also in the bus,” she said.

Unknown to her, the driver and officials work for an employment agency or company whose specialty is recruiting, transferring and receiving trafficked girls and women into domestic servitude in Saudi Arabia.

Normally, they register as an employment agency, but they are actually human traffickers. They have a chain of people working for them from recruiting agents, travel agents, and drivers, facilitating cheap maids from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The Nigeria line is said to be most lucrative as it is already popular and lucrative locally. Their clients include men and women looking for cheap maids for their homes.

Thus, Olasubomi was a victim of human trafficking, a fact she was yet to come to terms with.

 Human trafficking in numbers

The 2020 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons by the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime (UNODC), evaluates the high prevalence of modern-day slavery in Nigeria.

It estimates about 750,000 to one million persons are trafficked annually in Nigeria internally and externally. Predominantly, women, girls, and boys are trafficked to North Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Europe, mainly Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Norway, and in small numbers to the United States and Asia for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude.

The 2021 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report classifies Nigeria as a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking.

NAPTIP 2020 Report pointed out that the highest number of trafficked children in Nigeria are girls between the ages of 12 and 17.

It clarifies that 2.8 million girls/women work as maids in the Middle East region. They are bound to their employers under a system known as kafala, meaning ‘to guarantee’.

From Dammam to Arar

The driver drove the girls to Company’s office in a remote town, Arar.

Olasubomi said: “We traveled for twelve hours before we got to our destination in Arar, a rural community that is not as developed as Dammam.

Arar is a suburban agricultural community located in northern Saudi Arabia near the Iraqi border. It has a population of 166,512 (2010 census) and serves as a significant supply stop for travelers.

“On getting there, I was happy because I thought I would be working there.

“After about one hour of waiting, a Saudi lady and her husband, who later became my bosses, arrived to pick me up. The man’s name is Farhan Alhazmi, and the wife Entsar. I was told to follow them as I would be working for them. They said I should follow whatever instruction they gave me.”

Journeying into hell

That became the beginning of her journey to hell.

She said: “On getting to their home, the first thing they did was take my passport. They said I would be working in the house; cleaning, washing, and cooking. I would also be responsible for their seven children.

“It turned out that I would be doing the work of a maid, popularly called house-help in Nigeria.”

She would be earning a monthly wage of 800 Riyal (N88,000) for her trouble, they told her.

Their house turned out to be a palatial mansion with five living rooms and multiple bedrooms. The youngest of their seven children was only a month old. The oldest was 15 while the rest ranged between age 2 and 12.

“Since I was already there, I decided to give it a trial. So, I had to work from morning till late in the night.

“I would start the day by cleaning the house, then prepare the children for school.

“Four of them bed wet, so I had to clean them up and wash their beddings every day. I also had to cook and do other house chores.

“After one week, I could not take it any longer, so I stopped working and requested to be taken back to Company.

“I told them that I was misled as I ought to be working in a big company.”

 Locked up

On her return to Company, Olasubomi received the greatest shock of her life. She experienced her first lock-up and others were to follow.

She said: “I became the culprit. Farhan said I was lazy and rebellious.

“They took my phone away, led me to a small room and locked me up. The room was dark and I was alone. I was fed rice twice every day.

“They stopped speaking any form of English so I would not even understand what they were saying. I became very scared.

“At a point, a lady came to ‘discipline’ me. They said she would beat me back to reality.

“But she was gentle with me. She only spoke to me. She said I should just do as I was told because there was no way out for me.

“She said my bosses had paid money on me and Company paid millions of naira to an agent to bring me here.

“She said I would die and my family would not know where to look for me.”

The revelation brought her to reality. She finally reasoned that she had entered a ‘one-chance’ vehicle and only tact and wisdom could save her.

Frustrated into reality

Olasubomi spent seven days in the doghouse; a time enough to think out her predicament in a strange land.

“I was frustrated and tired. I wanted to die.

“I told them I would go back to my employers and do whatever they wanted.

“The same day, I was returned to my employers.”

Left with no choice, she put her mind and body to the unending involuntary servitude.

“From the treatment I received at Company, I knew I could be killed and no one would know. I also began to learn Arabic and in less than a month, I became fluent in the language.”

In the end, that decision and other factors saved her life.

Battle for pay

The next battle that she confronted was getting paid for her hard labour.

She said: “After a month, they did not say anything about my salary, so I asked them. Farhan said I would have to wait for another 15 days.

“I protested, stopped work and sat outside the house. That same day, he gave me 800 Riyal.

“Thereafter, I knew no more peace in the household. I regretted that I requested the money.

“Before then, I used to work for 20 hours non-stop. Entsar had a month-old baby and six other children.

“Four of them bedwet, so I wear pampers for them. If I wasn’t doing that, I would wash and scrub all day.

“Farhan ordered me to wash about 30 duvets. They were so thick I had to wash one with my hands and legs.

“He extended my work to washing rugs and cleaning and sweeping their large compound.”

Meanwhile, Iqmat, another Nigerian maid in a nearby house belonging to Farhan’s brother, had not received any salary for two years.

Olasubomi came in contact with her a few weeks after arriving in Arar. Although their bosses forbade them from interacting, they found time once a while to share their tales.

Iqmat tells own story

The 22-year-old was living with her parents in Lagos when a friend of her elder sister introduced her to the Saudi Arabia venture.

Narrating her story, Iqmat said: “The same Company that brought her (Olasubomi) to Saudi booked my way too. I’ve been working for this family for three years and three months. I’ve been subjected to slavery.

“They said I would be getting 700 Riyal monthly but I did not receive any money until my second month.

“I was paid for some months, but after one year my boss stopped paying me. I’ve not received anything for two years.

“Whenever I asked him, he would say he paid Company a lot of money for me.

“I have thought about running away but I don’t have any money. I don’t have a phone. I don’t have a travelling document.”

Abibat’s scary example

Abibat, 23, another Nigerian maid in the area, succeeded in escaping from her employer’s house.

The Hausa girl from Nasarawa State planned her escape during the holy month of Ramadan. As soon as her employer realised her absence, he alerted the police and within 24 hours, she was arrested.

Olasubomi said of Abibat. “I’ve not heard from her since then. The next thing I heard was that she was in jail. I’m afraid that I would end up in jail if I try to escape too.”

Nigerians in Saudi prisons

Recent happenings give credibility to her anxiety as hundreds of Nigerians rot away in Saudi prisons.

In January 2021, Saudi Arabia deported 802 undocumented Nigerians serving random prison terms, over the high cost of jail upkeep.

A statement by Gabriel Aduda, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the returnees were received at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja in two batches.

The first batch arrived on the 28th of January while the second batch arrived the following morning.

Despite the perceived dangers associated with running away, Olasubomi decided it was her best option. But she bided time.

This was after Farhan had added physical and sexual molestations to having her work extra hours.

She said: “During Ramadan (fasting month), I would start cooking at 1 pm and it would go on for the rest of the night. So, I only got to sleep when the family slept in the morning.

“One morning, I was dead asleep, when Farhan came to wake me up. I was tired and could barely stand. I told him I was tired, but he beat me up to the point that I nearly fainted.

“He dragged me to a dingy room and his wife did nothing. He, then, requested all my money. He said I disobeyed him.

“I ran out of the building to the next house, yet he came after me, beating me with whatever he could lay his hands on.

“He later seized my phone and made my communicating with the outside world impossible.

“At times, he would take me to another house to work without paying me.”

Thrice, she said, Farhan attempted to rape her and when she fought her back, he pushed her and threw things at her, inflicting bodily wounds on her in the process.

Threats of sexual molestation

“My boss’s wife was a doctor and was most times at work, so I had to take care of her baby. Meanwhile, her husband did not have a job and was always at home sleeping.

“One morning, he asked me to come and give him his ‘shomaq’ (local cap). On getting to his room, he grabbed me from the back and pushed me down. He was trying to rape me so I struggled with him and bit him.

“He pushed me and I fell on a metal, bruising my leg. I received a big cut and the mark is still there till today.

“He attempted to rape me two more times.

“After the second attempt, I told his wife and she did not believe me. She said I was lying. I brought out the Quran and swore with it. She was speechless and took the holy book from me.”

This, she said, went on for days, weeks, and months on end.

Agent from hell

In desperation, she reached out to Chukwa, the travel agent in Nigeria for help.

“I felt he could get me another job. Anything to just leave that position,” she said.

Instead, he conned her again. This time to the tune of about N200,000.

She said: “When I began to encounter these problems, I reached out to my agent in Nigeria for him to advise me.

“In fact, I told him I wanted a change of job. He asked me to send N200,000, which I sent through Western Union from my salary.

“After receiving the money, he blocked my number and I could not reach him again.”

Turnaround

By December 2021, her earnings had become epileptic. Sometimes, she had to wait for two months to get a month’s salary. She was in this logjam when a routine text message brought the answers she sought.

She said: “On December 27, I sent a belated birthday greeting to my late sister’s husband. He lives in the United States, and it is customary for me to call him on Christmas Day- his birth date.”

The simple text message turned out to be her saviour.

Recounting the series of events that led to her escape and eventual return to Nigeria, the Fontana, California based Festus Akinsola said: “I noticed the foreign number she used to text me so I inquired what she was doing in Saudi Arabia and she opened up to me about how she was deceived into slavery work.

“She said she wanted to go back home. She sounded tired and frustrated.”

Together, they planned her escape from Arar, but soon found out she lacked the resources to leave, even after working for one year and six months.

She said: “All my savings was N500,000. Out of it, I sent N200,000 home and bought a new phone. What was left was little.” She spent the remaining money while roaming the streets of Jeddah.

Escape route

On February 7, 2022, her boss and family travelled to Jordan and left her behind. She had been on the lookout for her passport, so she knew where it was kept. As soon they were out of sight, she took her passport and fled.

“Daddy,” as she fondly calls her benefactor, “wired 2000 Riyal (N220,000) to me to buy a return ticket to Nigeria. I did not want to go back to Dammam, knowing I could be spotted there, so I took an Uber taxi to Jeddah.”

Arar to Jeddah by road is approximately 19 hr 8 min.

She then went straight to King Abdulaziz International Airport (KAIA) and booked a space for the next available flight in two days.

Thinking that her problems were over, she majestically marched to the airport on departure day only to run into another brick wall.

She said: “I got to the airport on time, obtained a boarding pass, and was waiting for clearance.

“On getting to Immigration, they looked at my passport and said my boss did not write ‘coloq’ meaning ‘exit’ for me.

“They took my luggage and boarding pass and said I should call him to apologise because they said I must have escaped from him.

“I told them what I had been going through but they did not listen to me.

“They pushed me aside and said I should go back to where I was coming from.”

Her world was shattered. She was stranded, yet the option she was given, that of going back to her sponsor, could mean her death.

Unknown to her, immediately, Farhan knew she had gone, he had declared her a Huroob, meaning that she absconded. If a worker stays away from work without permission, refuses to work or runs away from the sponsor, the sponsor can report him to the authorities as Huroob.

In Saudi law, a worker reported as Huroob becomes illegal and loses his/her legal rights, salary dues and service benefits.

Farouk Abdulahi, a lawyer, said: “This is one thing no expatriate wants to experience. A Huroob charge can destroy your life. You are basically a criminal.

“It is an Arabic word referring to someone who has escaped.

“According to Saudi Labour Laws, all employers must report any foreign worker they sponsor who absconds.”

He noted the flaws in the system: “The absconding system is a major concern among migrant rights advocates because it criminalises employment mobility and can trap workers in abusive working conditions. The misuse of the system by sponsors is rampant.”

Like in the cases of Abibat and Olasubomi, the law gives employers the legal right to misuse and abuse foreign workers who can only leave with the grave consequence of being declared Huroob.

Saudi’s poor record of human rights violation

But Huroob is not the only problem with Saudi Immigrants law. Amnesty International confirmed the country’s abysmal record in human rights, including the rights of migrants, even after undergoing repeal in March 2021.

“The Ministry of Labour introduced limited reforms to its sponsorship (kafala) system in March 2021, easing restrictions on some migrant workers in relation to transferring jobs without the permission of their employers under certain conditions.

“The conditions include non-payment of salary for three consecutive months; expiry of the employee’s work permit; and when an employer fails to attend two litigation hearings if a labour dispute has arisen.

“The reforms also include allowing migrant workers to request an exit permit without the permission of their employer but did not abolish the exit permit.

“Under these conditions, migrant workers continue to be tied to their employers, who retain considerable control over their rights and freedom of movement.

“Domestic migrant workers continue to be excluded from protection under the country’s labour law.”

It is because of this that Abibat is in jail and the same faith stared Olasubomi in the face.

Abdulahi said Huroob is a big legal issue between Saudi Arabia and the international community.

Confused and distraught  

In a state of confusion and distraught, Olasubomi called Farhan, pleading.

“I knew that going back would be my death. I begged him to release me. Farhan was just saying I could not go anywhere until I came back and worked for another three years without pay.

“I asked if I could pay for my freedom and he asked me to bring 18000 Riyal, which is close to N2 million.

At this point, she broke down crying and did the unthinkable. She reported herself at the nearest Police Station for them to arrest her.

“I knew I wasn’t thinking straight again,” she said.

“I went to a police station for them to arrest and possibly deport me, but they chased me away. I felt like dying.”

Akinsola said she was in that state when he spoke with her again.

He said: “I was on the phone with her throughout the night. Indeed, I was afraid for her life. I felt she could kill herself.

“Thereafter, I told her to go to the Consulate General of Nigeria in Jeddah. I was sure they would handle her case professionally.”

Alas, he was so wrong. The Embassy of Nigeria in Saudi Arabia further compounded her problem. They extorted her and made her wander the city for close to three months.

She said: “I slept at the airport that night, and the following morning, I accosted a young man working at the airport for help in the area of accommodation while I sort out my life. He took me to his house, and for accommodating me, I cleaned his house. He treated me well for as long as I was there.

“On getting to the Nigerian Embassy, after relating my predicament, they said I should go and bring 400 Riyal (N44,000) to open a case file for me. They said without the money, they could not do anything.

“After that, they asked me to get a printout for my file, which I obtained for 250 Riyal (N27,000).”

This, she said, was where she finished her remaining savings.

“Al-Bawadi, where I was staying, is about 30 minutes by road to the Embassy. Each time I went there, I spent 50 Riyal (about N5,500) on transport.

“I spent all I had left as I had to go there several times before they could attend to me. After a while, I stopped going.”

Her situation worsened as everyone she accosted at the embassy asked her for money.

“A member of the staff said he would help me if I paid 5, 000 Riyal (about N550,000). Another one asked for 3,000 Riyal (about N330,000).

“Then one said he would collect 2000 Riyal (N220,000) to help me. One of their security men, Idris, even offered to help me if I brought 2000 Riyal.”

By February 14, 2022, when there was no headway, Akinsola decided to reach out to the Nigerian authority through the Nigerians in the Diaspora Commission (NiDCOM). The Commission, after reviewing the case, directed him to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).

The same day, Akinsola sent a detailed email to the office of the Director General, NAPTIP, at [email protected] and copied [email protected]

The five-page SOS letter, obtained by The Nation, expressed Olasubomi’s state of mind in detail. He quoted her contact number and his own in case the agency needed to investigate his claims.

“I waited for their reply but for days and weeks I did not see anything from NAPTIP.”

NAPTIP was to reply through Krombert David (IICU) on June 7, 2022, three months and three weeks after.

The email made available to The Nation offered no solace.

It read thus: “The Agency acknowledges your mail on the above subject matter. However, additional information like a photograph, address in Saudi Arabia, state of origin, local government area, and any other relevant information that was not included in your previous email.”

In fact, Olasubomi was already back in Nigeria when the reply came. She could not hide her anger recalling the uneventful happening.

“This is the reason why many Nigerians are suffering abroad,” she said.”

“We don’t have a system that works. If not for my benefactor, I would still be in Saudi rotting away. Maybe I would have been killed.”

When NAPTIP was contacted on this issue, Vincent Adekoye, NAPTIP Press Officer, in a signed reply said: “The Agency immediately commenced discreet operations with consultations and collaboration with partners and sister Law Enforcement Agencies within Nigeria and Saudi Arabia with a view to rescuing her and bring her back home.”

Final push

So, how did the stranded immigrant make it out of Saudi Arabia?

Akinsola recalled the final push thus: “When nothing was coming from all the letters and contacts in Nigeria, I decided there was no other option but to pay the Embassy and hoped for the best. I looked for 2000 Riyal (N220,000) and transferred it to her.”

By this time, she was two months and a week on the streets.

Olasubomi concluded: “As soon as I paid the unreceipted cash, they processed my document in about seven days, replacing Huroob with exit.

“Daddy had to send another 2,000 Riyal to purchase another flight ticket, and that was how I left Saudi on April 18th, 2022.”

She had spent 25 months with hard labour in Saudi Arabia.

The Nation sent a mail to the Consulate General of Nigeria in Jeddah to clarify its position on the alleged bride, but got no reply.

Olasubomi said: “If not for the support I got from my benefactor, maybe I would be in prison or dead by now.

“If as a foreigner you don’t have a Residential Permit, they would arrest and lock you up. Some people die in prison.

“If you don’t have Huroob on your passport, they would deport you, but once you have been stamped Huroob, you become a criminal.

“You would just be there roaming the streets. That is why many Nigerian girls go into prostitution to survive.

“It is God and Daddy that brought me out alive.”

While Olasubomi is back home and trying to pick the pieces of her life, Iqmat, Abibat, and hundreds of other Nigerian girls trafficked abroad are stranded in the gulf country. They are either suffering under abusive employers, in jail, selling their bodies, or in crime to make ends meet.

“I still see Iqmat and Abibat in nightmares. I count myself lucky to get out of this hell on earth,” Olasubomi added.