2012 Arab News
2012-03-08 Stranded housemaids
Published: Mar 8, 2012 22:05 Updated: Mar 8, 2012 22:05

The recent discovery of dozens of expatriate housemaids stranded in insanitary and unsafe conditions at Jeddahs King Abdul Aziz International Airport brings discredit to everyone involved except the members of the National Society for Human Rights (NHSR) who found out about and revealed details of the scandal.

It makes a sorry story. The housemaids, mostly from Ethiopia, had arrived legally in our country to go to work in Saudi homes. However, immigration rules stipulate quite rightly that such arriving expatriates must be collected by their sponsors, who will vouchsafe for the validity of their documents. What happened here was that no one turned up to meet and collect these new arrivals.

From this single failure then hung a succession of further failings by immigration officials, airport staff, police and welfare personnel. When two female members of the NHSR visited the airport, they quickly realized that no one had been prepared to take ownership of the problem. There had been no concerted attempt to contact the sponsors and have the unfortunate housemaids collected. There had been no attempt to resolve the problem by organizing the repatriation of the women to their home countries. And perhaps worst of all, for a country that prides itself on its duty of welcome, there had been no effort whatsoever to make these obviously alarmed and distressed women comfortable and safe, while they awaited the resolution of a problem that was in no way of their own making.

Instead, according to Noorah Al-Towaim and Laila Halwani, the two NSHR members who found dozens of the housemaids in the womens reception area of the airport, they were having to sleep on the floor in a cramped space. This room was without safety exists and because it had no ventilation, was filled with foul odors. Some of housemaids said that they had been given no food nor anything to drink for days. For others the ordeal was made even more terrible, because they had no space to sleep at all and no bedding either.

This is a shameful and unacceptable saga. Human decency should have impelled someone at the airport to first find decent and safe accommodation and proper nourishment for these women and then to sort out what was to happen to them. Instead it is clear that everyone involved assumed that it was someone elses problem and averted their gaze from what was an increasingly deplorable situation.
Whatever system that might be in existence for dealing with any arrival at the airport who finds themselves in the same situation, with sponsors who failed to show up, was not implemented. The simple and shameful truth is that no one seemed to care. Hussain Al-Shareef, director general of the NSHR has said that his organization discovered that there was a total lack of coordination between all departments at the airport. He demanded that the Makkah Governorate take steps to guarantee food, water and other basic requirements to anyone who finds themselves in the same situation.

It is hard to imagine what might have happened to these housemaids, who could have been stuck in this wretched limbo for a very long time, had not the NSHR heard of the problem and acted so effectively. It is surely axiomatic that when someone sponsors an expatriate, that person assumes a duty toward the arriving individual, which includes ensuring that their entry into the country and movement to their place of work is an efficient and trouble-free process.

It should not be forgotten that for many expatriates, their arrival in the Kingdom is often their first experience of another country and they may be filled with considerable anxiety and bewilderment. On that basis alone, the reprehensible treatment of these women by everyone involved, including their sponsors, is unforgivably callous. The sponsorship system needs to be tightened up and sponsors who fail in their duty of care should be punished. In this case if the authorities have to pay for the repatriation of the maids, the sponsors should be pursued and made to pay the costs.

What is happening at the moment is an affront to the practice of Islam and to the hospitality on which the Kingdom prides itself.

2012 Arab News
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