At first, Sarah Nakintu was grateful to her friend for alerting her to job opportunities in marketing and retail in Dubai.
Nakintu, a 27-year-old woman from the Ugandan capital Kampala, trusted her friend, who had worked in the United Arab Emirates and seemed successful with plenty of money.
She followed her friend’s instructions. Present a valid passport to the recruiter who would organise airline tickets and a visa. Once the documents were in order, Nakintu paid the recommended “token of thanks” to her friend – $200 in cash.
Nakintu (who requested her real name not be used) was advised to only keep her boarding pass to Kigali, Rwanda, in sight and hide her connecting pass to Dubai as immigration officials stop migrants who bypassed government recruiting agencies to seek employment.
But when Nakintu was met at Dubai airport by a Ugandan woman going by the name Jane Saad, she was told to hand over her passport and then informed she would be working as a sex escort.
“From the start I was terrified and tried to protest but she threatened us and said there were no alternatives as she had invested a lot of money in our trip,” Nakintu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Slowly we resigned and started following her instructions.”
Nakintu is just one of thousands of women every year to be trafficked into sex slavery, with the Australia-based anti-slavery campaign group Walk Free estimating there are 36 million people trapped in modern-day slavery around the world.
DUPED BY OTHER WOMEN
Like many others, Nakintu said she had not suspected her friend or other women from her own country would trick her into sex work and this approach meant she had let her guard down.
An annual report on human trafficking by the U.S. State Department in 2015 commented on the network of Ugandan women coordinating the sending of Ugandan women for sex exploitation.
It listed the top destination countries as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Kenya.
On her first day in Dubai, Nakintu was told that she owed Saad around $8,000 in recruitment fees that had to be paid back in instalments as well as costs for accommodation and meals.
The cost was high for a newly-arrived immigrant. A bed in a room housing up to three women typically costs Dh1500 (US$400).
To meet the target income, Saad told her she had to entertain about 10 men in the first two days.
In addition to turning over her passport, Nakintu had to undergo a witchcraft ritual during which she swore to hand over her income to her pimps with the threat of death in 10 days if this order was defied.
The U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons 2014 report noted that sex traffickers had been using voodoo rituals and violence to coerce Ugandan women into trafficking schemes.
“The pimps were ruthless women who sold our passports and return tickets to old prostitutes who wanted to retire and return to Uganda,” said Nakintu.
Nakintu was moved by Saad to Abu Dhabi where sex workers can earn more as she was deemed a good sale for higher-end clients.
There she met another Ugandan woman, identified as Maydina, who had worked her way up from being a night club prostitute in Abu Dhabi to a pimp married to a high-level business executive.
TRICKING THE CLIENTS
Maydina told Nakintu that the secret of wealth in Abu Dhabi’s sex work was white male clients – and to ensure she got their phone numbers supposedly for repeat business.
A few days after the first encounter, the worker would call the client to say she was pregnant, demanding cash not to expose his identify or $10,000 to return to Uganda for an abortion.
The sex workers could then continue the ruse, asking their clients for more money because of medical complications.
Nakintu said new workers were expected to target three men in their first month with these schemes and few women resisted because this was often the only way they could repay their debt.
“We were just desperate,” said Nakintu.
Nakintu managed to leave Abu Dhabi in May last year having been there for just short of a year and having paid off most of her debts. She returned to Uganda, devastated by the way she had been tricked and mistreated.
Some of her roommates did not hesitate in becoming recruiters themselves once back home, targeting other young women in Uganda tired of limited wages and high unemployment.
“Pimping was easy as one would ask friends to look for victims and pay that friend $100 for each victim they brought on board. I refused to do this,” Nakintu said during an interview in a small shop she now runs in Kampala selling household goods.
The U.S. State Department lists Uganda as a Tier 2 nation in its annual trafficking report, meaning its government does not fully comply with the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, but is making significant efforts to do so.
Moses Binoga, the police commissioner who heads the Uganda National Counter Human Trafficking Task Force, said the government has boosted vigilance on all exit ports to protect vulnerable young women such as Nakintu from sex trafficking.
Last year, the government stopped about 300 young women from exiting the country after ascertaining that they were being sent abroad specifically for the sex trade.
Binoga, whom the U.S. State Department has recognised for his efforts to combat human trafficking, said the government had also prosecuted and convicted several traffickers but it was complicated to combat the problem.
“The main challenge we have is that although we can prosecute traffickers on Ugandan soil we don’t have jurisdiction to prosecute those in the receiving states,” he said.
“Also when we’re prosecuting traffickers we have to distinguish between victims coerced into sex trade and those who agreed to a deal to go to Arab states and work as prostitutes.”