A rights group has urged Burundi's government to repatriate more than 820 girls and women who were trafficked to the Middle East in 2016 and are working in slave-like conditions.

Human trafficking is still very active, according to local non-governmental organisation National Observatory for the Fight against Transnational Crime (Observatoire National pour la Lutte contre la Criminalité Transnationale, ONLCT). In the face of the biting economic crisis in Burundi, girls and women are being smuggled abroad, mainly in the direction of Oman and Saudi Arabia.

With the promise of good jobs and salary, the victims wind up doing house work in extremely difficult conditions.

The NGO has called on the government of Bujumbura to protect and repatriate 824 of these victims, who it claims are still held in and working in conditions akin to slavery.

Some 31 have so far managed to escape the "claws of their captors" by getting repatriated to Burundi after having been subjected to "inhuman and degrading treatment", according to Prime Mbarubukeye, President of the ONLCT. One was sexually abused in Saudi Arabia and is now in a wheelchair, the group said.

This call comes less than two weeks after Burundian parliamentarians called on the government to quickly trigger a synergy of country's driving forces in these areas, with a view to dismantling criminal networks in the field of human trafficking in the country.

The MPs made the recommendation in a workshop organised by the Burundian Ministry of Human Rights, in an effort to incorporate the n°1/28 Law of 29 October 2014 relevant to the prevention and punishment of the trafficking in persons in Burundi.

Victims taken via transit countries

According to Félix Ngendabanyikwa, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Human Rights, most of the victims of human trafficking are predominantly female, hailing from the densely-populated provinces of Ngozi, Kayanza, Karusi and Gitega.

The ministry said traffickers changed their modus operandi, now using transit countries to smuggle Burundian victims, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia and Malawi.

Victims are oriented towards pastoral work, domestic work and sexual exploitation in the Middle East (Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia), the United States, Norway and Australia.

In July 2016, the Congolese police stopped 14 women at the airport of Goma, in the east of the country. Five were travelling to Oman, nine were heading to Saudi Arabia, according to the police spokesman, Pierre Nkurikiye. Their traffickers – all from Bujumbura – were arrested by the Congolese police.