Ugandans fly to death in hunt for jobs abroad

Ugandans wait to be cleared at Entebbe International Airport before they take a flight to the United Arab Emirates for work. PHOTO / FILE

What you need to know:

  • Nakintu’s dream was, however, shattered after she woke up in hospital, with a missing right kidney. The circumstances of removal of the vital body organ remained murky after initial accounts by the employers in Jeddah to relatives that the victim was involved in an accident were discounted.

When Ms Judith Nakintu travelled to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in December 2019 through a recruitment agency called Nile Treasure Gate Company, she thought her years of suffering had finally come to an end and that her life would change for the better.

Nakintu’s dream was, however, shattered after she woke up in hospital, with a missing right kidney. The circumstances of removal of the vital body organ remained murky after initial accounts by the employers in Jeddah to relatives that the victim was involved in an accident were discounted.

Relatives later learnt that one of Nakintu’s two kidneys --- a vital organ to filter blood and remove waste --- was suspiciously taken out without her knowledge and consent, and she was kept in a warehouse rented by her employer, where another Ugandan migrant worker attended to her.

Doctors at Mulago National Referral Hospital, who examined the woman upon her return to Uganda in October 2021, confirmed these accounts, according to details contained in the latest report to Parliament by Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), a statutory rights body.

Nakintu was paralysed on the right side and faced speech difficulties attributed to the questionable surgery in Saudi Arabia.

UHRC reports that in 2021 alone, up to 28 Ugandan migrant workers, among them 25 females and three men, perished in Middle East countries --- a favoured destination for Ugandans seeking jobs abroad under the government’s externalisation of labour policy.

Three of the victims passed on during the global pandemic disruption, during which international skies were shut and President Museveni in one of his televised national addresses banned return of the bodies of any Ugandan who died on foreign land at the time.

The trio for unstated reasons was interred in two countries during the height of Covid-19, and relatives told government of Uganda officials that the decision breached terms of the job contract the employees signed.

“Selected cases of deaths of Ugandan migrant workers in the Middle East in 2021 include Milly Namazi, who reportedly died in Egypt in December 2021 after she had been sold there by her former employer in Saudi Arabia, Zaituini Zawedde, who died in Saudi Arabia and Shadia Najjuko who died in Saudi Arabia in June 2021 and was buried there,” the statutory rights body reported.

Whereas UHRC did not provided names, places and causes of the demise of the 28 Ugandan migrant workers, a source with working knowledge of the matter intimated that majority died in Saudi Arabia, a country which signed bilateral labour agreement with Uganda government in 2015.

The agreement followed widespread allegations of gross mistreatment, abuse and deaths of Ugandans enlisted in the oil-producing country mainly as domestic labourers, and the official commitment was intended, at least in proclamations by officials of both governments, to guarantee protection of the rights of the workers and stem further violations.

The companies that export Ugandans to work abroad --- an arrangement that critics have dubbed voluntary modern-day slavery, but one that protagonists last as employment opportunity --- are licenced and regulated by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.

Owners of the firms are mostly highly-profile citizens who, if not politicians and security honchos, are businesspeople with top-level connections to either circle, making some to escape scrutiny or culpability for some of the deaths.

Our analysis of the Gender and Labour ministry data shows that about 30 Ugandans are on average allegedly killed or maimed in each year by their employers in the Middle East.

Uganda’s statutory rights body, UHRC, also noted cases of sale of Ugandan maids from one country to another, with the women treated by third parties as personal property to be sold over and over to prospective buyers for a profit, and without the girls’ consent.

“Others were hired out by their employers or taken for extra work at the employers’ relatives without their consent and at no extra pay. This practice is a reflection of modern-day slavery,” UHRC noted in its report submitted to Parliament,

The Commission says whereas migration has provided employment opportunities and improved the living conditions of many Ugandans and their families, in recent years, there have been repeated outcries of hostility and inhumane treatment meted out on Ugandan workers abroad.

“These included harm and exploitation experienced by Ugandan migrant domestic workers at the hands of their employers in the Middle East, including sexual and physical abuse, withholding of salaries, and overwork,” the report reads in part.

It adds: “Other reported human rights violations and abuses included loss of life, human trafficking, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, exploitation of labour, sexual exploitation in the form of prostitution, organ harvesting, confiscation of identity or travel documents, discrimination in the form of racism and xenophobia, deprivation of the right to culture, freedom of worship and information, among others.”

Ministry speaks out

Gender, Labour and Social Development Minister, Ms Betty Amongi, whom we asked about the stark findings and how the government will address them, described the reported cases as “real” and that that the lapses are being rectified.

Majority Ugandan migrant workers who have died in the Middle East were taken by unlicenced agents, she said, disclosing that her ministry was working with that of Internal Affairs to crack down on suspected traffickers.

According to the minister, some of the victims travel for work with terminal diseases and that due to harsh conditions abroad, they end up dying, prompting the necessity at home for thorough medical check-up before departure.

“We have been testing, but only for HIV, blood count, syphilis, and other minor conditions. Going forward, we have agreed that we shall begin carrying out comprehensive and thorough tests for cancer, organs and other major complications so that we only send people who are able to withstand conditions outside there,” she said.

Ms Amongi, citing reports that Ugandan migrant workers are paid lower than signed contract salary and offered no or inadequate medical insurance, said they are renegotiating with officials in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates to secure rights of the workers.

The allegations of mistreatment or failure to pay the migrant workers, or their trafficking, or the government promise to engage with counterparts in Middle East to address the highlighted plight, are now new.


For instance, the UHRC reports that in 2021, cases of mistreatment or abuse of Ugandan migrant workers doubled to 421 from 214 the previous year.  Slightly over half of the cases registered last year included internal trafficking while 113 and 30 were suspected trans-national trafficking or aggravated trafficking, respectively.

Investigators identified the masterminds as users of unregistered or fraudulent entities, violence or fake promises of education and job opportunities to trick and coerce victims.

During the same period, a total of 1,295 persons were recorded as victims of trafficking in persons out of whom 790 were victims of transnational trafficking, 475 internal trafficking while 30 victims were unknown. A total of 713 were female adults, 285 were female juveniles, and 181 victims were male adults while 86 were male juveniles.

Most persons were trafficked to Dubai in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Oman and Abu Dhabi.

Whereas cases of abuse of migrant labourers persist, it is not for the government of Uganda doing nothing, according to officials.

In August 2021, the Internal Affairs ministry suspended 11 external labour recruitment agencies, citing gross forgeries and abuses such as human trafficking and extortion. There is no evidence, as of yet, that these punished firms exported some of the 28 victims who died, or were reported killed, in the Middle East last year.