By Abdulai Mansaray
Just when you think that Sierra Leone has had enough COVID on its plate, up pops another controversy. Our country has just played host to a sizeable number of its citizens returning, repatriated, or deported from, Kuwait. Take your pick. Interestingly, the timing has not been clever; leading to the usual rumours galore. Rumours about over fifty of the reported 75 returnees; as suffering with COVID symptoms have been doing the rounds. No surprises there. It is also alleged that this is the reason why they were sent back from Kuwait in the first place; which sits conveniently with the modus operandi. As expected, they have been placed in “quarantine” subject to tests and medical clearance. This has since been the talking point from all parties. The resulting anxieties from all parties are understandable.
With such a backdrop, the” locals” who seem to believe that our citizens were “deported” because they are COVID infected is bound to understandably generate some anxiety and anger. They see their fellow citizens like untouchables now. On the other hand, the “returnees” dispute this version and claim that they were all tested and are symptoms free before travel, with certificates to show for it. The government, some will say rightly follows the protocol to quarantine and test them. We all know the inherent pain and discomfort quarantine brings; hence the frustration and anger from these people.
But is this the first time that our citizens have been returned from Kuwait or other Middle Eastern countries? No. Have we had such a hullabaloo about such trips in the past? No. So, what’s different? With such a myriad of versions, the controversies can be inevitable, especially when you have different authors postulating their theories on social media. This is not helped by the lack of transparency or explanation from authorities, which creates communication vacuums that can only engender rumours, conspiracy theories and fake news.
Sierra Leone and Middle Eastern countries have long-held relationships; grounded in religious, economic, humanitarian, cultural and other diplomatic ties. They have not been always rosy, and this latest episode will not add an extra gloss to it either. With our perennially unenviable unemployment rate, the Middle East has been a get -out of jail destination for employment for many of us; and especially women who work as house maids, au pairs and some, unofficially but regrettably as sex slaves. At face value, and although it helps release the valve on the pressure for employment in our country, there have been horrible stories about the abuse and mistreatments our people face in the Middle East.
There are loads of video clips on social media, depicting inhumane and savage treatments received from their “Kafils” (Masters) or “madams”. With some exceptions, the majority is reportedly the worst examples of the by products of human trafficking; thanks to the multitude of rogue and unscrupulous local recruiting agencies whose only concern is to enrich themselves out of the miseries of their compatriots; lured with promises of paradise. Many hardly know about their consular representatives in their host countries. Redemption from such servitude mostly comes if they successfully run away from their “kafils”; which in effect does increase their chances of coming to the attention of our diplomatic communities. Most remain locked indoors.
According to the Labour Laws of Kuwait, absconding from your ‘Kafils’ or Master is punishable by deportation without trial. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) which was established in 1951 has been dealing with such cases for that long. Within the framework of the Joint Programme to Support the Capacity of the Public Authority of Manpower, the IOM’s initiative Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) program, as it says on the tin has facilitated countless missions. Most host countries recognize the value of AVRR as the most humane, dignified, and sustainable return option, which some have institutionalized.
At this point, let us imagine being subjected to such conditions and you return to your home country after a 3-week quarantine; only to endure a further quarantine in less favourable conditions. The anger and frustration are understandable but it’s the right thing to do. The rumour that they were deported because they are covid infected, or that over fifty of them are COVID borne is bound to raise an understandable level of anger and anxieties as well. However, it is wrong to deny them entry, while we are happy to sing to the rafters that “Home sweet home” and “no place like home”. It was heart rendering to see one of the returnees kiss the ground upon disembarkation at Lungi Airport.
Another factor that conveniently feeds into such conspiracies is the fact that immigrants; especially the black and ethnic minorities have disproportionately had the highest number of COVID victims worldwide. Can you see how this fit into the narrative? So, for Kuwait to deport these people, whether for COVID reasons or not; but especially during the “last ten days” of the Ramadan, when the Holy Quran is said to have been delivered, and close to EID was not only the worst diplomatic “salmafo” but seemingly abhorrent to many. Remember that the emphasis here is on “ACCUSATIONS”, en hen. Some may see it as a “kafir” behaviour from the “kafils”.
It may sound convenient to focus on the merits or demerits of the “deportation”. It may also be convenient for some Kuwaiti and Middle East bashing. But it is grossly comical for some people to lambast the BIO government for displaying the “insensitivity” and “audacity” to “receive” and “accept” its OWN CITIZENS. Some people are so incensed by this, that they are suggesting, the government should have employed short gun diplomacy and REFUSED ENTRY to its OWN citizens; because they believe that these people may be infected (understandable) and that the airport had been locked down. Some of these critics, safely tucked in the comfort of their armchairs see the government’s constitutional duty as wrong; to accept its citizens. I wonder who is insensitive here.
In the meantime, such people are happy to unashamedly carry documents which “ request and require in the name of the Chairman of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hinderance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need”; as written on page 1 in their passports. But at the same time, they are requesting their own government to refuse exactly what it is asking other governments to accord its own citizens beyond its borders.
Moving from the COVID debacle, this episode brings into focus the insidious human trafficking that has long plagued the lives of us all. Sierra Leone and Kuwait do not have monopoly on this nefarious practice; as countless stories of human suffering and depravity worldwide, continue to nauseate our moral senses. Come to think of it, the issue of domestic servants, sex slaves or house maids in Kuwait cannot be dissimilar to that in the West. We just differ job descriptions or names; security, home help, carer etc.
However, is it time our government paid more attention to this, now that that the chickens have come home to roost? (pardon the pun). Has this saga disembowelled the underbelly of this nefarious practice? If so, is it time for the big conversation and for the government to listen in action? Is it time for our successive Governments of to put a definitive halt to this?
In 2015 Kuwait took significant steps towards combatting human trafficking, including establishing a specialized counter trafficking unit in the Ministry of Interior, passing Domestic Worker Law 68/2015 to regulate working conditions, and most recently by establishing the Government Shelter for Foreign Workers; where the IOM has been facilitating some of its AVRR programs. Should our governments leave such a labour market in the hands of the traffickers, while we have a labour Ministry? Is this not what a labour Ministry should be facilitating along standard and official employment procedures with their counterparts?
Despite our anxieties, it is no justification to refuse our citizens and by implication render them stateless on our own soil. Even Nabilahi Issa (Jesus) told us about the prodigal son; although the government’s welcoming party in this case is a quarantine. Covid or no Covid, deportation or no deportation, repatriation or no repatriation and returnee or no returnee, “Broko coonu sef geh owner” (G. Sesay) and I still believe that “there is no place like home”. May Allah continue to shield us all from the COVID fithna.