Shelter-in-place orders, restricted movements and government closures, necessary measures to slow the spread of the COVID-19 in Kurdistan, have resulted in a financial crisis leaving many migrant workers unemployed, and with compromised legal status as work permits expired. International travel bans meant those undertaking domestic work were unable to return to their home countries, and without access to safe shelter, many became even more vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking. 

Terri*, a 27 year old from Ghana, was abused and exploited while working as a household assistant. When her work permit expired in September 2019, she contacted the employment agency that brought her to Erbil and although they promised to renew her work permit, they did not do so. Wanting to escape the ongoing abuse, Terri tried to leave the family that had employed her, only to discover that the employment agency had closed down and they still had her passport. Terri was without work and a work permit, had no place to stay, and no means to travel home. 

Not wanting to pay the penalty on her expired work permit, Terri’s abusive employer handed her over to the Anti-Trafficking Police, who referred her to SEED’s STEPS Center, which provides safe shelter and comprehensive case management services to survivors and those at risk of trafficking. Terri needed emergency travel documents and legal support to obtain an exemption from the penalties accrued due to her expired work permit. With SEED’s legal support, cases like Terri’s can generally be resolved within a short time, however, with government offices either closed or operating within limited hours due to COVID-19, Terri has been unable to return home to Ghana. During this time, Terri has been supported to obtain emergency travel documents and the penalty for her expired work permit has been waived.

While waiting to return home, Terri is safe at the STEPS Center, where she has a case manager and psychologist, who both offer emotional support and techniques which support her to process the exploitation she experienced. Being unable to return home for an indefinite amount of time has been hard on Terri and the nine other women at the STEPS Center, who found themselves in similar situations. During these long months, SEED staff have been present and have worked hard to provide ongoing legal support and extra mental health and psychosocial activities to the residents of the STEPS Center.

While Terri has experienced safety and support of the STEPS Center, many migrant workers, particularly those in domestic service, have been unable to escape abusive employers,  had wages withheld or lost their jobs and/or accommodation due to the crisis. Many remain at high risk of further exploitation, homelessness, mental health breakdown, and being put in jail due to having expired work permits — with little access to help or support services. 

“Looking back, I remain grateful for the assistance provided at the shelter. I cannot imagine what would have happened to me if I had remained with my abusive employer for the period of the lockdown,” said Terri. After a reflective pause she pondered, “I wonder if I would have even survived to tell the story?”

*Name and minor details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

Erbil airport reopened on August 1, 2020 and Terri and six other shelter residents have now travelled home safely to their families. SEED’s anti-trafficking work is funded by the US State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (JTIP).