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.”
Brexit: British Embassy launches survey on key issues affecting UK nationals in Spain | Brexit | International
The British Embassy in Madrid has launched a survey aimed at finding out how UK nationals in Spain have been affected by key issues, in particular, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, a process commonly known as Brexit.
The poll is for Britons who are full-time residents in Spain (not those with second homes) and are covered by the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, i.e. they were officially registered in the country before December 31, 2020, when the so-called Transition Period came to an end.
Questions in the survey address issues such as access to healthcare and the uptake of the TIE residency cards, which were introduced as a replacement for green residency cards (either the credit-card size or the A4 sheet version, officially known as the Certificado de Registro de Ciudadano de la Unión).
The aim of the poll is to gather vital information on the experience of UK nationals living in Spain that will help the British Embassy provide feedback to Spanish authorities. The survey takes around 10 minutes to complete, and all answers are confidential.
Have you heard our Spanish news podcast ¿Qué? Each week we try to explain the curious, the under-reported and sometimes simply bizarre news stories that are often in the headlines in Spain.
‘The challenge for us now is drought, not war’: livelihoods of millions of Afghans at risk | Global development
The war in Afghanistan might be over but farmers in Kandahar’s Arghandab valley face a new enemy: drought.
It has hardly rained for two years, a drought so severe that some farmers are questioning how much longer they can live off the land.
Mohammed Rahim, 30, grew up working on a farm along with his father and grandfather in the Arghandab district of Afghanistan’s southern province. Famous for its fruit and vegetables, the area is known as the bread basket of Kandahar.
Like most in the valley, Rahim’s family relies solely on farming. “The fighting has just stopped. Peace has returned,” Rahim says. “But now we face another war: drought.
“Now we have to dig deep to pump water out of the land. It has been two years, there has been little rain and we have a drought here. I don’t know if our coming generations can rely on farming the way our ancestors used to do.”
Pir Mohammed, 60, has been a farmer for more than four decades. “Not long ago, there were water channels flowing into the farm and we were providing the remaining water to other farmers,” says Mohammed. “Before, the water was running after us, flowing everywhere – but now we are running after water.”
The water used to come free from the river but now the daily diesel cost for the water pump is at least 2,500 Afghani (£21).
“We don’t make any profit. We are in loss, rather. Instead, we are using our savings. But we don’t have any other option as we do it for survival,” says Mohammed. “However, the scarcity of water has affected the quality of crops as well.”
About 70% of Afghans live in rural areas and are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of drought.
Last week, Rein Paulsen, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Office of Emergencies and Resilience, said severe drought was affecting 7.3 million people in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces.
He warned: “If agriculture collapses further, it will drive up malnutrition, increase displacement and worsen the humanitarian situation.”
Arghandab has been a favourite destination for farming because of the abundance of water and fertile lands. Neikh Mohammed, 40, left the Dand district of Kandahar to work in Arghandab in 2005. When he arrived he was amazed to see the greenery and pomegranate farms.
“It used to rain a lot here and we could not cross the river and come into our farms. We had a life with abundant water. But the past is another country now,” he says.
According to a report by the UN mission in Afghanistan, many local farmers were caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces. The Taliban carried out attacks from thick foliage on the farms, which provided a hiding place, ideal for an ambush.
“For the past 20 years, we did not have peace and could not work after dark in our farms. But now we can stay as long as we want without any fear,” says Neikh Mohammed. “Now the challenge is not just restoring peace but the drought and escalating cost of essential commodities.”
Farmers say they want support from international aid agencies and assistance from the new government headed by the Taliban to help them survive.
Pir Mohammed says: “The real challenge for us now is drought, not war. We need food, water, dams and infrastructure in our country. The world should invest in us and save us.”
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