New Yorker covers sex trade in Dubai
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Stella Rotaru’s cell-phone number is scribbled on the wall of a women’s jail in Dubai. That’s what a former inmate told her, and Rotaru does get a lot of calls from Dubai, including some from jail. But she gets calls from many odd places—as well as faxes, e-mails, and text messages—pretty much non-stop. “I never switch off my phone,” she said. “I cannot afford to, morally.” She looked at her battered cell phone, which has pale-gold paint peeling off it, and gave a small laugh.
Rotaru, who is twenty-six, works for the International Organization for Migration, a group connected to the United Nations, in Chisinau, Moldova. She is a repatriation specialist. Her main task is bringing lost Moldovans home. Nearly all her clients are victims of human trafficking, most of them women sold into prostitution abroad, and their stories pour across her desk in stark vignettes and muddled sagas of desperation, violence, betrayal, and sorrow.
Her allies and colleagues in this work are widely scattered. An ebullient Dubai prison officer named Omer, who calls Rotaru “sister,” has been a help.
I wanted money, and I was deceived,” Lena said. (Some of the names in this article have been changed.) She was from a village in northern Moldova. She had high, thin eyebrows and a worn face. “I was nineteen. My boyfriend told me I could be a waitress in Portugal. We had been together for a year and a half.” Her boyfriend organized her trip, paid her airfare, drove her to Odessa, and put her on a plane to Lisbon. A friend of his met her flight, and told her that the waitress job had fallen through. He offered to take Lena to Dubai, where there was, he said, more work. He seemed trustworthy, and they flew there together. An Arab met them in Dubai, and the next day a woman from Uzbekistan took her to an apartment.
“That was when I realized I had been sold,” Lena told me. “Because she gave money to the Arab guy, and my passport was taken.” There were six Moldovan women already at the Uzbek woman’s place. They were working, they said, as prostitutes in discos, all paying off travel debts that the “she-pimp,” as Lena called her, claimed they owed her. Their clients were mostly Arabs and Russians. “The she-pimp was very aggressive,” Lena said. “She beat disobedient girls.” Lena was put to work.
She ended up spending a few years in Dubai, on and off the street, in and out of jail. After escaping with two other women, Lena went to the police, who arrested her. The Uzbek woman declined to hand over the passports of her ex-workers, and went on with her thriving business.
For Moldovan women, the Balkans were the major destination until six or seven years ago. Now, according to La Strada [an anti-trafficking group], it’s Russia, Turkey, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai.
At police headquarters in Dubai, an official served me coffee in beautiful china. She wore a black full-length hijab. We talked about the influx of Eastern European prostitutes. “Some men want blond hair, pale skin,” she said. “Where there is a market, there is a problem.” She had worked with Stella Rotaru on the repatriation of Moldovan detainees. Every case was difficult, she said, because Moldova had no embassy or consulate in the United Arab Emirates.
Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, is, in the world of human trafficking, the quintessential destination. A city-state boomtown on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf, it has a population of 1.4 million, nearly eighty-five per cent of whom are foreign-born. There are hundreds of thousands of construction workers, housemaids, waiters, and shop clerks from South Asia alone. For traffickers, it’s an almost perfect recipe: mass immigration, mass transience, a tremendous concentration of money and anonymity, and a robust demand for labor. Many migrants arrive on contracts that look a great deal like trafficking: they owe either travel agencies or their employers substantial debts (as much as two years’ pay) for their recruitment, are not allowed to change jobs, and, although the practice is illegal, routinely have their passports taken by employers. The prostitution market is huge. Between tourism, naval traffic (the port of Dubai is one of the world’s largest), a three-to-one ratio of males to females, and the traditional sequestering of local women, the demand side of Dubai’s commercial sex industry never flags.
Prostitution is hardly invisible in Dubai. At an intersection, I saw four Eurasian-looking women solicit customers. In one bar, with an English-pub theme, the prostitutes told me that they were from China, Thailand, Vietnam, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Ghana; in another, from Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, India, Jordan, and Moldova. (The Moldovan was blond and looked hard-used; she wouldn’t tell me much.) And a great deal of the local prostitution is “closed site”—in apartments, massage parlors, and brothels.
In 2005, the U.A.E. was dropped into Tier 3 in the State Department’s anti-trafficking rankings, down there with Burma. That did not fit the brand being so painstakingly built in Dubai, which has aspirations to become a world business capital and mass tourist destination, with the world’s largest snow dome and what will soon be the world’s tallest building. In 2006, the emirate passed an anti-trafficking law that helped get it hoisted to the Tier 2 Watch List, where it remains, along with Mexico (and Moldova).
Dubai is an autocracy, ruled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. The space for civic institutions is minuscule. Still, a modest private shelter for battered women and children, called City of Hope, has subsisted since 2001 in a beachside suburb. Its founder and director is Sharla Musabih, an American-born Emirati who has been married for twenty-five years to a local businessman. She generates a certain amount of animosity in Dubai. City of Hope takes in victims of domestic violence—housemaids, wives, their children. It also shelters trafficked women.
The police in Dubai were not especially happy when I turned up in their precinct. Even an Interpol captain with whom Rotaru had conducted, via phone and text, long searches of the rougher souks and sections of Old Dubai for captive women who had called her—with at least one spectacular rescue to their credit—suddenly remembered that he was not authorized to speak to a journalist.