Edelyn Eborda Astudillo wanted a better life for her three children. The 36-year-old from Mariveles in the Philippines, and her husband, Crisanto, had been unemployed for six years and things were getting desperate. So, in early 2015, Edelyn made the decision to travel to the Middle East to get a job as a domestic worker.
After applying to a Philippine recruitment agency, Manumoti Manpower, Edelyn was soon on a flight abroad. She was placed in a house to work for a couple in Taif, in the west of Saudi Arabia.
However, it became clear almost immediately to her family that something was not right. Edelyn’s phone was taken by her employers, and she was only able to speak to her family about once a month. During these conversations Edelyn hinted to Crisanto that she was also being physically abused.
One of these calls to Crisanto came in the middle of the day. Edelyn asked to speak to her children. When she realised they were at school she began to cry. In the background Crisanto could hear a woman, one of Edelyn’s employers, screaming: “Stop it! Stop it!” Then the line went dead.
It was 26 August 2015. Edelyn has not been heard from since.
The oil-rich nations of the Gulf rely on millions of migrants from countries in Africa, Asia and poorer Arab states to do low-paid jobs in construction, hospitality and domestic work. Saudi Arabia is the main destination for Filipino overseas workers. But some, such as Edelyn, never come home.
The Guardian has reviewed more than 40 pages of documents and emails relating to Edelyn’s case. The Astudillo family want to know what has happened to her, but they have received no answers from the Saudi authorities.
Edelyn’s children – Chris Edrix, 19, Crislyn Jane, 17, and Christine Joy, 13 – are traumatised by their mother’s disappearance.
The family’s situation deteriorated in 2009, when Edelyn and Crisanto lost their factory jobs during the global economic recession. They survived by taking out loans and on financial support from relatives, with Crisanto picking up any casual work he could.
The Astudillo’s poverty and debts became so overwhelming that there was little choice but for one parent to leave to try to make money overseas.
“Her dream was to build a new house for her family, to be able to buy better food and give her children gadgets,” says Lou Astudillo Ambita, Edelyn’s sister-in-law. “She had many dreams, but they won’t come true because she’s missing. It’s so sad.”
The Astudillo family rent a room in a small house shared with three other families. Their living room is also their bedroom and kitchen, and they sleep on mats on the floor. There is no access to wifi.
“Edelyn is funny, intelligent, caring,” says Crisanto. “My favourite happy moments were when we would dream together that some day we would own a house of our own.”
Migrant domestic workers are employed in the Gulf under the kafala sponsorship system, which ties their legal status to their employer. Even though this is now illegal in most Gulf countries, and banned in Saudi Arabia since 2015, migrant workers typically have their passports taken by their employers, who have control over their movements. If a domestic worker breaks the contract and leaves – or runs away if they are victims of abuse – it is considered a crime.
The kafala system has drawn widespread criticism from humanitarian organisations, with Human Rights Watch calling it “abusive” and “exploitative”.
Documents reviewed by the Guardian paint a confusing picture that reveals nothing was done by the Philippine authorities or the recruitment agency to help locate Edelyn for at least three months after the alarm was raised that she may have come to harm. On that occasion, Manumoti Manpower did not respond to several requests for comment.
The first sign of action was in December 2015, when the Philippine consulate in Jeddah contacted Edelyn’s employer, a Saudi citizen whose name is known to the Guardian but is being withheld as he could not be contacted for comment.
The employer then filed a report with the Saudi authorities stating Edelyn had run away on 21 September 2015, therefore absolving himself of his responsibilities to her.
Under the kafala system, whether she is dead or alive, Edelyn is now regarded as a criminal for absconding. The Philippine consulate in Jeddah also conformed to this version of events.
“The runaway report submitted by the concerned employer to the immigration and passport authorities releases him from any liability for whatever will happen to the subject worker, hence, there is no legal basis to build a case against said employer at this time,” stated the Philippine consulate in Jeddah in an email in November 2016. At this point, Edelyn had been missing for 15 months.
Edelyn’s family do not believe she ran away, and say she would have contacted them. There is no way the doting mother would have willingly cut contact with her children for the six years that have now passed, they insist.
“I think her employer has hurt her,” says Lou. “If she died, we would like to know where she is.”
Despite many attempts, the Philippine consulate did not respond to the Guardian’s requests for comment.
“Sometimes, they treat these cases as just cases, even though [domestic workers] are human beings, and their lives and their families are affected,” says a Saudi national, who briefly worked on Edelyn’s case, and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisals. “It could have been investigated more thoroughly.”
Not only is it common for employers to file false runaway reports, but sometimes they do it when the domestic worker is still in their home, says Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“This is partly to absolve them of having to pay for their worker’s return ticket home, as the worker would be considered to be in violation of the immigration system, at risk of arrest and deportation,” says Begum.
Falsely reporting a domestic worker as missing is also a method employers use to avoid paying their salary but keeping them as servants, with little consequence, Begum says. She recalls a case where an Indian domestic worker in Saudi Arabia was held in a house for 16 years, until she managed to get a message to her family.
“The employer was not arrested for forced labour, domestic servitude or even the minor crime of passport confiscation,” says Begum.
Could this mean that Edelyn may still be alive?
Searching the home of her employer soon after her disappearance could have helped determine whether she was alive. But the documents seen by the Guardian indicate that no search took place.
A report in January 2018 from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration states that a request to search the house had been made to the Saudi authorities in January 2017. However, a year later, the report said it had “yet to receive a response from the formal communication sent regarding the matter”.
The Saudi government’s Center for International Communication did not respond to a questions about whether it provided assistance in Edelyn’s case, and if the Saudi authorities typically investigated reports of missing migrant workers.
“Governments in the Gulf do not conduct investigations into ‘missing’ workers. The presumption is that they have absconded and are working as undocumented workers,” says Begum.
The exact numbers of missing migrant workers in the Gulf are unclear, according to Human Rights Watch and the UN’s International Labour Organization.
“Many workers go missing every year,” says Begum. “Governments of [migrants’] countries of origin should track this even when Gulf governments do not, as families do report to them when they have lost contact, but this data is not made available.”
The Guardian sent a series of questions about Edelyn’s case to the Philippine government’s Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Labor and Employment, the Philippine embassy in Riyadh, and Silvestre Bello, the secretary of labour and employment in the Philippines, as well as the consulate in Jeddah. None of these questions were answered.
A director from Manumoti Manpower, Edelyn’s recruitment agency, told the Guardian they did not know her whereabouts.
The Astudillo family claim that it is because they are poor that the Philippine authorities have not prioritised the case.
They have been left desperate and broken. The children yearn to have their mother back. They especially miss family trips to the beach on Saturdays – one of Edelyn’s favourite outings. But their memories of her are fading.
“They were very happy times,” says Crislyn. “My mom always wanted family outings. She loved the sea and the sand.”
This is a milestone year for Crislyn. She recently graduated from high school and will turn 18 in October.
“I wish I could see my mom on my birthday, that would be the best gift ever,” she says. “I miss my mom’s care; I miss her so much. We are not rich, but having a complete family was enough for me. She is the best mom in the world.”
Omicron: The new wave of coronavirus infections in Europe: What’s the situation and how is it being felt in Spain? | Society
The new coronavirus wave appears to be dividing European countries into two leagues: those that, in spite of the uptick in infections, are keeping their hospitals under control, and those that aren’t. The data suggest that the places with more than 75 to 80% of their total populations are vaccinated are better resisting this new rise in cases. Others, meanwhile, with just 10 percentage points fewer in terms of immunizations, have had to resort to drastic measures given the imminent collapse of their healthcare centers. That said, the numbers from some countries, such as Belgium – which has vaccination rates similar to those of Spain – and the strength of the new wave (with the reach of the newly detected variant, omicron, still to be determined), suggest that caution is needed given the rise in hospitalizations in certain Spanish regions. In Aragón and Navarre, for example, the number of hospitalizations due to Covid-19 has doubled in the last month.
Infections on the continent have started rising at different times and at different speeds. In the Baltic countries, Bulgaria and Romania, cases seem to have peaked and are falling according to the dynamic that has been seen at other times during the pandemic. In Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria and the Netherlands, new positives have risen to levels that have not been seen in the last two years. Germany has also registered a record in infections and the volume of Covid patients has once again affected the normal running of healthcare centers. In Spain, Italy and Denmark, cases have risen later and for now, are doing so at a lower velocity.
In recent months, the number of hospitalizations has been an even more important indicator, given that the vaccines are preventing serious illness and infections alone do not reflect the genuine magnitude of the wave. This figure is worrying in some countries. In Bulgaria, for example, the situation is critical: 100 of every 100,000 inhabitants are hospitalized due to Covid-19 – practically double the figure in the worst moment of the pandemic in Spain after last Christmas. In Slovakia and Slovenia, which are headed toward a peak in terms of cases, hospitalizations have been growing for weeks and are currently at 45 per 100,000 inhabitants. These numbers are close to those of the worst moment in that country too, seen during last winter.
Also showing worrying trends are Slovakia (55 hospitalizations per 100,000 inhabitants), Czech Republic (49) and Poland (44). In the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Spain, hospitalizations are also growing, although apparently at a slower speed. In none of these countries has the incidence of hospitalizations exceeded 10 per 100,000 inhabitants so far.
In this scenario, what role are the vaccines playing? Poland and Denmark represent a good example. The incidence of new infections is similar, but Polish hospitals are seeing six times more Covid-19 patients than those in Denmark. It is likely that the extraordinary capacity of Denmark to detect nearly all of the cases that there are (the country has a positivity rate of 2.4% compared to 24% in Poland) is having an influence, but the difference in vaccine coverage in these countries is also a factor: in Denmark, 76% of the population has received two doses; in Poland, the figure is barely 50%.
This pattern is clear in other countries: the higher the vaccination rate, the lower the incidence in hospitals. This can be seen in the following graph: countries such as Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary, with roughly 50% of the population vaccinated, have a higher number of hospitalizations than countries with greater coverage such as the Netherlands and Belgium, which have already inoculated more than 70% of inhabitants.
It should be noted that these countries with fewer vaccinated residents have suffered larger waves of infections (as indicated by the size of the point on the graph), and this has caused a higher number of hospitalizations. But it is also true that in countries with similar numbers of cases, hospitals have suffered more where there is a lower vaccination coverage, something that can be observed when France and Denmark are compared.
Enric Álvarez, a researcher at the Computational Biology and Complex Systems group in Barcelona, explains that “in countries with 75% or more of the population vaccinated it appears that incidence rates close to 1,000 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days are not being reached, something that is occurring in countries with 10 points fewer, such as Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia. On the opposite side is Denmark, which is [the country that Spain] is likely to most resemble.”
For now, it is clear that the countries with more people vaccinated have emptier hospitals, given that people are experiencing less-serious cases of Covid-19. As epidemiologist Óscar Zurriaga explains, “it might not appear to be a huge difference, but going from 65% to 80% vaccinated is millions of people, a huge amount of citizens. What’s more, they are not always distributed by age in a homogenous way like in Spain – this allows for the circulation to not be focused in particular age groups.”
Spain – below on the right in the graph above – is a good example of this relationship. But there are exceptions, such as Belgium, which with 75% of the population vaccinated has the same number of hospitalizations per 100,000 inhabitants as Austria. That’s to say, if the incidence doubles, there is inevitably a rise in the number of patients in hospitals.
The vaccine alone is not enough to explain these differences. Firstly, because its effectiveness is reduced with time. “There are a number of different scenarios for the fall in effectiveness,” explains Álvarez. “If the vaccines continue with a descending trajectory when it comes to slowing transmission, it is clear that the situation in terms of infections and hospitalizations can rise once more.”
Seasonal behavior is also important: places where the cold weather arrives first, such as in central Europe, are seeing people spending more time indoors, and it is easier for infections to happen there. And finally, as Ortiz points out, “the relaxation of measures, which has taken place much faster in other countries, has had a massive influence in some infection curves.”
The gradual relaxation of these restrictions in Spain no doubt has also had an influence on the fact that its situation is far from those of other European countries. What’s more, the high vaccination coverage could be avoiding a new wave of hospitalizations.
Even so, the situation is one of tense calm and in recent weeks the data has gotten worse in the majority of Spain’s regions, which are in charge of their coronavirus restrictions, healthcare systems and vaccination programs. In Aragón and Navarre, hospitalizations have doubled in the last four weeks. In Catalonia, in the last week the incidence data has worsened among those aged between 60 and 80, something that has caused a significant increase in hospital occupation.
“The fact that there are regions that are rising is the proof of something that we already knew: the vaccine is not enough to eliminate transmission,” Zurriaga explains. “That is why it is not convenient to rely on the third dose for everything: if it stopped transmission, it would be a key factor, but this is not the case. Three concepts continue to be key: ventilation, masks and vaccines.”
Even taking these rises in the indicators into account, the situation is far from what it was a year ago. Catalonia, for example, has an incidence of cases that is comparable to that of October 2020, more than 220 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the last 14 days. At that time, with rising infection rates, the region was reporting more than 1,500 Covid-19 patients. Now that figure is practically half, at 720. The Basque Country had 520 patients at the time, with a curve that is similar to the one it has now, but currently has just 224 coronavirus patients, which is less than half.
‘Taste this, it’s salty’: how rising seas are ruining the Gambia’s rice farmers | Global development
In the sweltering heat of the late-morning west African sun, Aminata Jamba slashes at golden rice stalks with a sickle. “The rice is lovely,” she says, music playing in the background as her son, Sampa, silently harvests the grain. But even if the quality is high, the quantity is not.
While once Jamba could have expected to harvest enough rice to last the whole year, this year she reckons it will last three to four months. After that, she will have to look elsewhere for a way to feed her family and make enough money to live.
“Things are different now,” explains Manding Kassamah, a fellow farmer and mother of nine, fresh in from the rice fields, empty water can in hand. “The rains used to come in plenty. People would work and have a good harvest. Now, we work hard but we don’t get as much rice as we used to.”
Traditionally, rice farming in the Gambia has been mostly done by women, while their male counterparts look after the groundnuts. But for years now the female farmers have watched as the land around them becomes increasingly difficult to manage.
Here in Kerewan, on the north bank of the Gambia River, they are battling the climate crisis on two fronts. Rising sea levels are pushing saltwater further and further along the river, which snakes its way across the length of the low-lying country, and prolonged dry spells mean less freshwater to flush out the salinity. The result is that the water in the fields that used to produce rice is now too salty, and the much of the land – more than 30 hectares (74 acres) – has had to be abandoned. For women such as Jamba and Kassamah, that is a disaster.
“These women are pushed out and they don’t have many other livelihoods to turn to like men,” says Muhammed Ceesay, 27, from the youth-led organisation Activista. “It pushes them into poverty. They are very vulnerable.”
The women here are relatively lucky, as they do have an alternative source of food and income in the form of a vegetable garden. They can grow aubergines, tomatoes, peppers and onions, and know that, even if they have dwindling rice supplies, they will have something to sell or eat. “It’s our tomorrow,” says Binta Fatty. “It helps us in so many areas because it helps us stay healthy and to be able to buy small things for our children. That’s why we focus on the garden after the rice fields.”
This backup is essential. Last year’s rice harvest only lasted Fatty about six months before she had to do what in Kerewan would once have been unthinkable: buy imported rice.
In the past 10 years, this has become the norm across the Gambia. “In this community there was a time when, if they saw you buy rice from the shop, they would know there was hunger in your house. Now, it’s the order of the day,” says Almamo Fatty, 63, no close relation of Binta, although the two joke that they are brother and sister.
“I don’t think you will see anyone in this community [now] who will say: I can farm enough rice to feed my family for longer than six months,” he says.
His own is no exception. His son, Kemo Fatty, a climate activist who was part of the Gambian delegation to the Cop26 climate summit, has seen how his mother has become gradually less self-sufficient. “She has to depend on my pay cheque to actually buy rice that comes from China, and this has been happening for the past couple of years now,” he says. “Imagine, from having our own rice that we grew and ate all year round to having no rice at all.”
The Gambian government knows more needs to be done to protect its farmers from the impact of the climate crisis: agriculture is the most important sector of the economy, accounting for about a quarter of GDP and employing about 75% of the labour force.
But, from low technological capacity to poor energy supplies, the challenges for farmers are daunting. Almost all food in the country comes from rain-fed fields, making farmers particularly vulnerable to changes in precipitation.
And female farmers – who are expected to shoulder the burden of caring for their families as well as earning their keep, risk domestic violence as poverty bites, and are often unable to access the contraception they need to control how many children they want – are arguably the most vulnerable of all.
The Gambian climate activist Fatou Jeng, who was also in Glasgow for Cop26, says that although they make up about 70% of the country’s agricultural workforce, women and girls “face inadequate access to basic natural resources needed for farming”.
Writing for the International Rescue Committee website, she adds: “There is a great injustice at the heart of all of this. All too often, these under-represented groups, such as women living in fragile states, understand most about what is at stake and, therefore, the solutions needed to tackle climate change. Yet women in particular have been systematically excluded from the decision-making table.”
In short, if women like Jamba, Kassamah and Fatty are left out of the climate crisis solution, the solution may never be found.
Standing on the boggy banks of a tributary of the Gambia River, Almamo Fatty gestures to the ground, the clay sparkling in the sunshine. “This stuff you see shining? That is salt,” he says, shaving off a thin layer with a machete. “If you taste this, it is salty.” And it is.
“Twenty years ago, if you grew rice here it would grow like this,” he says, gesturing to his shoulder. One field would have produced 20 bags of rice. Now, there are plans for a dyke to stop the saltwater, but he knows life will never go back to the way it was before the climate crisis arrived. “This land here, it was all rice fields,” he says. “Now it’s all abandoned.”
G7 to hold emergency talks on Omicron variant
G7 health ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Monday about the new Omicron Covid-19 variant spreading across the world and forcing border closures, as experts race to determine the level of threat posed by the new strain, The Guardian writes. The meeting was called by G7 chair Britain, which is among a steadily growing number of countries that have detected cases of the heavily mutated new strain.
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