Crude burial of 22-year-old highlights plight of female migrant workers in Saudi Arabia

·8-min read

Like many women from Madagascar, 22-year-old Mélanie emigrated to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid. When a video of this young woman’s burial in Saudi Arabia was posted online on March 15, it shocked people across Madagascar. It wasn’t just her brutal death, it was also because the footage showed a bulldozer being used to shovel dirt on her grave, a horrific sight for anyone from Madagascar, where burial rites are sacred. Human rights organisations are speaking out about the vicious human trafficking bringing domestic workers from East Africa to Gulf countries.

A French-Malagasy organisation reached out to the FRANCE 24 Observers team on March 15 to show us this video, which was filmed on March 11 in Al-Jubail, a town on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. It shows a burial taking place in Jubai cemetery, one of the only non-Muslim cemeteries in the country.

The video, which is only a minute long, was filmed by one of the Malagasy women who attended the burial. The footage shows a sandy, desert landscape. A bulldozer pushes earth over the grave containing Mélanie’s body. She’s wrapped in a white kafan, which is the cloth used to wrap a body according to Islamic burial rites. You can hear one of the Malagasy women crying out in pain, while the woman filming tries to calm her. Mélanie was a domestic worker, who arrived in the country in 2018. She died in a violent manner after escaping from her employer’s home in Dammam.

'Mélanie told her friends that if she didn’t return that night, she’d be dead'

AZIG, a French-Malagasy organisation that provides administrative and psychological support to domestic workers from Madagascar and other African countries in the Gulf, contacted the FRANCE 24 Observers team about this video. Like many other Malagasy domestic workers in the Gulf states (the seven Arab countries that border the Persian Gulf) Mélanie was in contact with Carrozza Heliarisoa, AZIG’s coordinator, who is based in France.

Since 2019, Heliarisoa has been helping repatriate domestic workers from Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Migrant workers are governed by the “kafala” system, which requires workers to have a sponsor. This sponsor then holds their passport, which makes it impossible for them to flee.

She believes that Mélanie, who turned to prostitution after escaping from her employer’s home, died in suspicious circumstances. She told us the story related to her by Mélanie’s friends:

The day that Mélanie was killed, a client called her. He had rented a hotel room. He said that he was alone, but when she arrived there were several other people. Mélanie told her friends that if she didn’t return from this meeting, she would be dead.

Mélanie was carrying a lot of money. When the session was over, they cut her throat and some of them probably took her money. One of Mélanie’s friends received a shocking photo showing Mélanie’s mutilated and blood-covered body laid out on a sheet along with the message: “Here, your friend is dead.”

Her body was found in the bush outside of Dammam in October 2020. I contacted the Malagasy embassy in Riyadh, but no one did anything about it and her body was left there, outside, for two or three months. At that time – last October – the Riyadh airport was closed and around 85 Malagasy female domestic workers needed to leave Saudi Arabia after having broken their contracts. It was only then that the Malagasy embassy got her body.

In the end, Mélanie was buried without a coffin. This is unacceptable. In Madagascar, there is a lot of respect for the dead. There are very specific traditional funeral rights.

'The pimps make between €400 and €500 per client depending on the girl’s skin colour. The lighter she is, the better she is paid'

In 2019, the body of a girl who I was supposed to repatriate was found buried there. Dammam is a prostitution hub. There are a lot of Malagasy women who work as madams there, often alongside madams from Kenya and Ethiopia. The young women working as prostitutes are able to send money back home to their families but, because of the madams, they never get the entire amount.

Sometimes, if these young women have earned enough money to free themselves from their madam, the madam will actually murder them. Based on our information, that is probably what happened to Mélanie. Often, the family has no idea what is happening in their daughter’s life.

Lots of women who are employed as domestic workers are mistreated. Often, they can’t stand the treatment and the terrible working conditions and so they run away. They end up without papers. The madams recruit them and keep them in homes in secluded areas, where they are guarded with firearms. The madams get €400 to €500 per client depending on the girl’s skin colour. The lighter she is, the more she earns.

The young women recruited for domestic work are between 16 and 25 years old. Often, when they leave Madagascar, they lie about their age. These girls are alone. If not for organisations like ours, it would be over for them. I’ve had phone conversations where I was trying to calm down young women who wanted to kill themselves.

There are also cases when employers beat their domestic workers, kill them and bury them somewhere, but we have no way of verifying. How many Malagasy girls have disappeared? Where are their employers? What do they have to say about it?

In 2013, Madagascar enacted a decree banning the migration of Malagasy domestic workers to Gulf countries, including Kuwait, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, which were listed among the 10 worst countries in the world for workers in the 2019 global rights index compiled by the International Trade Union Confederation. Even so, at least 10 million of Madagascar’s citizens work as migrant workers, or around one third of the population. An estimated 1.3 million of those migrant workers are women and 80 percent of those women work as domestic workers.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: How an Ivorian domestic worker escaped captivity in Kuwait

'The domestic workers who flee their employers are often traumatised by their experience and just want to leave the country'

In 2009, Saudi Arabia passed a law against human trafficking, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to a million riyals (€230,000).

However, people rarely go to the police to report human trafficking and investigations are rarely completed, says Rima Kalush, the coordinator of the Migrants Rights research centre, which gathers reports about the abuse of migrants in Gulf countries and tries to provide them with humanitarian and judicial support.

Our our networks are stronger in Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, so it is not easy for us to provide support to migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, for example. Sometimes, if the situation is truly desperate, then we post calls for assistance on social media, but that rarely bears fruit. We also try to contact the embassies. We know that quite a number of African embassies don’t have attachés who take care of the diaspora, so we try to see who we know in the area, in the community, who might be able to help.

In general, domestic workers are excluded from any kind of labour reform because the government doesn’t consider them an “active” part of the labour system, so no one protects them or prioritises their interests.

This is because, for Saudis, it is extremely important to have affordable workers. Saudi public care services (like childcare) are mediocre at best and, sometimes, non existent. These workers allow Saudi citizens to enjoy a kind of luxury and maintain control of it.

There are shelters for domestic workers who escape from their employers, but very few in the Gulf countries: Bahrain and Kuwait have them, for example, but the United Arab Emirates doesn’t.

But even when there are shelters, foreign domestic workers need to go with a local person to file a complaint and accelerate the procedure. And often, if a woman files a complaint for mistreatment, the authorities will try to mediate between the two parties.

But the domestic workers who flee their employers are often traumatised by their experiences and feel frightened and lost when they consider the complex bureaucracy that they are facing. They just want to leave the country.

'The domestic workers aren’t able to choose their employers and can’t return to their home countries'

Taha Hadji is a Saudi lawyer specialised in human rights. He has been fighting for the rights of hundreds of migrant workers in his country, something that is made harder by legal restrictions, like the fact that migrants can’t form associations or unions. Reforms came into effect on March 14, but this doesn’t help the most vulnerable workers:

These new laws don’t protect these workers. They can’t choose their employer or return to their home country.

Domestic workers often live with their employers and their entire life takes place behind closed doors. No one knows what might happen to them. There is a lot of sexual abuse, torture and mistreatment.

Lots of domestic workers flee from their employers and end up begging or becoming prostitutes. When they flee, they have to work under a third party. The possibility for abuse becomes more severe. That’s when a person can really become trapped in a dangerous and vicious cycle including mistreatment, addiction and sexual trafficking. And they can’t turn to government institutions for help because they are afraid of being returned to their employers or even incarcerated.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: In Saudi Arabia, domestic workers are auctioned online

The Malagasy Ministry of Foreign Affairs says there are more than 500 Madagascar nationals in Saudi Arabia, most of them employed as domestic workers. The number of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia rose from 830,000 to 2.42 million in a 10-year period.