A U.S. report on human trafficking has placed Madagascar in the lowest category and claims the country's de facto government has done nothing to crack down on the practice of sending thousands of women to the Middle East, where the majority of them encounter forced labor and abuse. The new report reduces prospects of the U.S. resuming non-humanitarian aid to the island nation, to which it suspended aid in 2009 following a coup.
The new report claims Madagascar has increasingly become “a source country for women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking," particularly since a March 2009 coup sparked an economic crisis and “a decline in the rule of law."
The report says Madagascar's government has done little to prevent the sex trafficking or to prosecute so-called job agencies and government employees that recruit vulnerable women, often from poor, rural areas, and trick them into leaving for lucrative contracts in the Middle East.
About 800 women have returned home from Lebanon since 2009, with most women ending their contracts early because of mistreatment. Seventeen bodies have also been shipped home from Lebanon.
The women bring back stories of torture, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, and harsh working conditions with little or no pay and little or no opportunity to escape contracts.
Over 7,000 women from Madagascar are known to work as maids in Lebanon, and in March the government repatriated 86; including 59-year-old former nurse Abeline Baholiarisoa. She says a job agency offered a false three-year nursing contract in 1986 that led to 15 years forced labor as a maid.
She says on arrival for her new job the agency said her contract was null and void and was designed only to get her out of the country. She said her life and the lives of her children were shattered.
With her identification papers taken away, Baholiarisoa says she suffered mistreatment and near-starvation as a domestic servant working up to 24 hours a day for a salary that barely covered her costs.
A government ban on sending workers to Lebanon has failed to address the problem, with women being sent through countries like Mauritius and the Seychelles to end up in Lebanon, and more recently, Dubai and Kuwait.
Madagascar's Minister of Population Nadine Ramaroson, named in the report for trying to bring these women back with little help from other government officials, says the problem dates back to the 1990s. She said it is a crime network that involves government workers and is very tough to break.
Abeline agrees with the report’s demands that Madagascar needs stronger relations with Lebanon or women will continue to be lost and open to abuse.
She says these women need a doctor, lawyer, social worker and journalist out there, otherwise they will always be at risk of exploitation.
The U.S has criticized the government’s reactive approach to the problem, which has failed to use anti-trafficking laws or awareness campaigns to stop women, by the hundreds, being sent from Madagascar’s shores.
More than 600 women are still awaiting repatriation from Lebanon, with charities saying a quarter of them are emergency cases. Meanwhile, few resources have been given to provide psychological, medical and financial support to the many traumatized returnees.