Punjabi women stranded in Oman recount horrid tales of their trafficking ordeal
As 24 of the 38 women from the state are brought back from Gulf nation, victims in Moga, Ferozepur and Hoshiarpur districts recount the ordeal.
A 41-year-old woman from Moga district was rescued from Oman and reunited with her family on May 17. A fortnight on, she still shudders to recall the ordeal she had undergone since December 2021 after she was duped by a woman travel agent and trafficked to an Oman national for ₹3 lakh.
The mother of a nine-year-old boy said she agreed to go to Oman only to support the family financially as her husband, a taxi driver, had fallen on bad days after the Covid-19 lockdown. “I wanted to go to Singapore but the travel agent said there were no jobs after the pandemic. She put me in touch with an Indian in Oman, who assured me of a monthly salary of ₹24,000 for working as a domestic help. At first, I was hesitant but gave in for the family’s sake,” said the woman at her modest two-room rented house in a narrow lane of Moga.
The woman, who has studied up to Class 5, said her husband arranged ₹70,000 somehow and she landed in Oman on December 13, 2021, on a tourist visa. “I was taken to an office in Muscat, where I met the Indian man, Deep. There were seven more women there and after a few days, a few Omanis came to see us all at the agent’s office. I was granted work visa for two years from January 16, 2022. Unaware of the terms and conditions, I was taken to a large house where I was told to do the chores from 5am to 10pm,” she said.
The work conditions were deplorable. A vegetarian, she was served only rice and non-vegetarian food. “I was forced to work without a break for even tea. I refused to continue after 15 days and was taken to the travel agent’s office where I was locked up. It was there that I came to know that Deep had sold me off for ₹3 lakh to my work sponsor. I was beaten up by the agent’s men as they forced me to work again,” she said.
With shattered dreams, her only priority was to return home to her ailing mother-in-law and young son. Travel agents allowed her to call her family only to demand ₹3 lakh. “My passport when I reached Muscat. All my calls were recorded. In the lock-up, I heard about a gurdwara in town where I could take refuge. Last August, I gave consent to work again and was taken to the house. The same day, I managed to escape and reach the gurdwara,” she said.
Road to rescue
Expressing gratitude to granthi Bhai Maninder Singh, she said, “Nearly 70 women had taken refuge at the shrine. There were women from other Indian states and Nepal, too. They complained of inhuman treatment and pressure to hide their background from the local employers. Since we didn’t have our passports, we were helpless. It was then that one of the followers at the gurdwara helped us send our video clip to Rajya Sabha member Vikramjit Singh Sahney and our appeal was heard.
Sahney, who is the president of the World Punjabi Organisation (WPO), a voluntary body, has so far rescued 24 Punjabi women from Oman in a fortnight. He says the Oman chapter of WPO has identified 38 such women and efforts are on to bring them back.
“We have hired an immigration law firm in Oman to fight a legal battle to accelerate the process of bringing these women back. Our lawyers are connecting with the Omani sponsors and agents of these women and paying them the requisite penalties to get the necessary documents for their travel,” Sahney said on Friday.
An aide of the MP said groundwork by WPO showed that there had been a spurt in women trafficking in Oman post-Covid. Since many had lost their jobs and sources of income due to the pandemic-induced lockdown, villagers began exploring opportunities in the Gulf.
The Punjab government set up a special investigation team (SIT) under Ferozepur superintendent of police Randhir Kumar to probe all human trafficking cases, particularly of Punjabi women in the Gulf countries. “We have arrested three agents on the basis of complaints filed by women. In several cases, sub-agents who lured the women to go to Oman to earn well were known to the victims. It is learnt that the main players are based in Telangana, Delhi and Punjab. They work in coordination with accomplices in Muscat and Dubai,” the SP said.
“Migration is estimated to be a ₹300-crore industry. Unscrupulous agents exploit vulnerable sections,” said an official.
Ludhiana inspector general of police Kaustub Sharma said 13 first information reports (FIRs) have been registered after a formal complaint by the women or their family members. However, two of the rescued women have refused to pursue any legal action against the touts.
“Our team is identifying the perpetrators who worked at the behest of agents. We will soon identify them and work to extradite offenders abroad,” said the IGP. “Almost all women come from humble backgrounds and are barely educated to understand the visa process and conditions of work contracts. The agents charge about ₹70,000- ₹1lakh each. These rescued women say they were lured to Oman on the pretext of jobs as either domestic help or caretakers at good salaries,” he added.
However, after reaching Muscat, the women found themselves captive as local agents took away their passports and mobile phones and forced them to sign agreements.
Police sources familiar with human trafficking said the first case in the chain was detected in April-end from Ratta Khera village in Ferozepur.
“A 22-year-old woman was lured by her relative to go to Oman to work. She was introduced to a Hyderabad-based agent to work as a domestic help in Muscat. Once she landed there in April on a tourist visa, the woman was sent to work at another house of an Oman national, where efforts were made to push her into prostitution,” said an official, requesting anonymity.
She escaped and got in touch with the sarpanch, who informed officials.
Left to die on roadside, she survives
When a 27-year-old woman from Tungwali village in Bathinda dreamt of a career as a beautician in Dubai, her family supported her. But reality was different. “I landed in Muscat and paid about ₹90,000 to reach Dubai on a visitor visa on January 6. I met an acquaintance of a relative who told me there was no immediate work at any beauty parlour. I ended up as a house help and was forced to slog from 5am-11pm without a break. When I refused to consume the non-vegetarian food offered to me and expressed resentment, I was locked in the agent’s office and survived only on plain rice and water. After six days, when I insisted I wanted to return, the agent demanded ₹1.25 lakh and arranged for another woman to work in my place in Muscat,” she said.
Asked how she escaped, she said she fell unconscious one day and the agent panicked and abandoned her on the roadside with her passport. “Somehow reached the gurdwara in Muscat and contacted the Indian embassy. There were many women at the gurdwara. While many were forced to work under poor conditions, several are pushed into flesh trade. The government should take strict action against dubious Indian agents who exploit women from underprivileged families,” she said.
Trapped, sold and rescued
A 40-year-old woman from Hoshiarpur’s Mukhliana village says she was trapped by another woman from the village who called her to Oman on visitor visa and promised her a two-year work permit if she paid her ₹1 lakh. She paid ₹30,000 to the woman’s family in the village but when she reached Oman in March, the woman didn not come to pick her up from the airport. Instead, she sent a local agent, who in turn handed her over to another man. Her passport and mobile phone were taken away and she was made to work at his house for 19 days. Her employer didn’t pay her for the work and dropped her at a Hyderabad-origin travel agent Sayeed’s house, who tried to exploit her. When she refused, she was thrashed and denied food. He demanded ₹2.75 lakh to send her home but when she expressed inability to do so, she was handed over to a woman. There, she met another young Indian girl who had been similarly trapped. Both of them managed to escape.
“We approached the local police who asked us to contact the Indian embassy. Since the embassy was closed for two days due to holidays, we stayed at a park. Thereafter, we stayed at a gurdwara and with the help of the Indian mission returned home on May 17,” she said.
The Mehtiana police have booked the woman who duped her and Sandeep, but no arrest has been made.
Abused and tortured
After the death of her husband, a mother of four children from Shergarh village in Hoshiarpur district took the help of another woman from the village to shift to Dubai to make ends meet. Keeping her children’s future in mind, she accepted the offer to work in the Gulf. After paying ₹30,000 as advance, she got the visa and left for Dubai. For many days, she did not get a job and decided to return but the woman resident of her village demanded ₹2 lakh. One day, her old documents were torn and she was handed over to a woman agent who took her to Muscat on fresh documents.
“I was deputed as a maid but the agent would keep all the money I earned. She would abuse and torture me. One day, I escaped and took shelter in the gurdwara, where I learnt about Sahney’s initiative and finally made it back”, she said, urging the government to take strict action against dubious agents.
A case has been registered at Sadar police station in Hoshiarpur in this connection.