Human trafficking stories always follow the same pattern, says Sara Shuhail, director of Ewa’a Shelter for Women and Children. ‘A woman is working in a village abroad, and is approached by someone who tells her she can make five times her salary if she comes to the UAE. She is told not to worry, and that someone will meet her at the airport. When she arrives, in Dubai or Abu Dhabi airport, she does find people waiting for her. They take her official papers and trap her in a room, probably in a high building. They lock the door on her. Then they force her to work as a prostitute.’
More than a hundred victims of human trafficking passed through Ewa’a’s shelters last year. Launched in 2008 by the decision of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed, the organisation runs three shelters – in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah – to help these women and, in some cases, children.
The shelters provide everything from psychological and medical care to support through the legal process of prosecuting the traffickers. Their rehabilitation also includes activities such as handicrafts, swimming or drawing, to try to restore a sense of normality. Some victims are eventually returned to their home countries through similar local shelters, and given a small budget to help them rebuild their lives. School-age girls can continue their education here online, or through English and computer classes.
Sara’s voice drops audibly when she talks about the younger girls who come through the doors, who are sometimes as young as five years old. ‘The most difficult thing for me is when we receive children in the shelter, because I can’t believe there are people who can do these things to a child. When this happens I don’t sleep for a week – sometimes they come again in my nightmares. But I can’t show the children my sadness.
I have to be strong with them. Sometimes I say, “Don’t worry,” but I am worried. I say, “Don’t be sad,” but I am very sad inside.’ Staff at the shelters try to create a warm and homely atmosphere, so their wards feel as though they are surrounded by a family and can try to relax. ‘But it’s difficult for [the victims]; they need a lot of rehabilitation.’
Ewa’a finds the women and girls through many different channels, such as police departments, embassies or hospitals. Some escape from their captors, while others are discovered. ‘One very intelligent, educated businesswoman was told there was a job for her in the UAE, but quickly realised she was in the hands of a trafficker. In three days she broke everything in the flat, she even broke the lights. Then she ran away – through the window. She came to us, with all her hands cut. In just a few days the [legal] case was finished because she knew who the trafficker was, and his location, and was able to tell the police.’
Other woman find freeing themselves much more difficult, because they are told their children and loved ones will be harmed if they don’t do as they are told, leaving them trapped in an impossible situation. ‘Some of the stories are unbelievable. You can’t imagine that people can do these things.’
For the future, Sara hopes the new website and hotline, to be launched this month, will raise awareness about the issue, help the organisation’s fundraising efforts and, most importantly, put the group in contact with more women who need help. ‘Every person in this country can help combat this crime by volunteering, donating or spreading the word that there is a shelter for victims of human trafficking. I want society to collaborate with us and help us. Hopefully in the future we can close all these shelters. That will mean our country is completely free from human trafficking.’
Visit Ewa’a’s website at www.shwc.ae. For more information about human trafficking or to report a crime, call the hotline on 800 7283, or phone Ewa’a on 02 558 4812.