Earlier this year, however, more than a hundred registered recruitment agencies were allowed to resume practice under strict new guidelines.
The governments settled on Sh27,000 (850 dirham). “For those returning, the Kenya government proposed a minimum pay of 1,000 dirham (around Sh30,000),” Mr Muiruri says.
Kenyan domestic workers have also been added to Saudi Arabia’s Musaned system, an online platform launched in 2014 that tracks workers’ placements and work contracts.
In theory, the system stops bosses from withholding pay, since it’s designed to automatically transfer money from the employer’s account to the employee’s.
Under these new protections, the first wave of newly-accredited Kenyan domestic workers just started to return to the Middle East this year.
Demand for the newly-accredited training programmes is huge, according to Mary Kibe, a project officer at the Centre for Domestic Training and Development.
She says that between 350 and 400 women graduate from the programme each month at the centre.
Edith Murogo, a leading crusader for domestic workers’ rights in Kenya for the past 18 years, attributes the current flow of domestic workers, particularly to Saudi Arabia, to the government’s new protective measures, which include enhanced minimum pay.
“The women domestic workers are returning and fresh ones signing up for employment to Saudi because they now strongly feel that the landscape and conditions have changed, unlike in the past where there was no government involvement in this migration,” she observes.
“They feel a sense of protection and feel better equipped and confident to make the move.”
Anne Mwendwa, 26, who trained for a job in Saudi Arabia, says she is confident about her prospects in the Middle East.
“I was nervous initially,” she said, having heard stories of migrant worker abuse. “But I’ve been prepared, trained, and briefed.”
She added that if something goes wrong, she trusts the new policies to protect her.
Loise Adhiambo, 29, and Halima Njoki, 40, are set to go back to the Middle East and have just finished the required training.
After going through difficulties and what they describe as mistreatment by employers in Bahrain and Qatar, respectively, in 2016, the two still have prospects for a better life for themselves and their families in getting work in Saudi Arabia.
“The first time I went in an illegal situation and chaotic manner through brokers who did not prepare us for what lay ahead,” a more hopeful and confident Ms Adhiambo says.
The young woman says she’s determined to make it in the Gulf countries, to help take care of her father and four siblings.
“Although I had a terrible experience in Bahrain, I have also heard about positive stories of success especially from Saudi Arabia,” Adhiambo, who hopes to earn between Sh27,000 to Sh30,000, adds.
She is in the company of Njoki — a mother of two adult children — who worked in Qatar for close to a year before escaping back home after what she describes as a “harrowing experience” and mistreatment by her Qatari boss.
The government’s renewed interest and involvement in the welfare of migrant domestic workers has convinced her to give the Gulf countries a second try.
“I’ve done enough background to conclude that the amount of work in Saudi households is reasonable and manageable and the working conditions are now better,” she notes, adding, she has a work plan.
“I’ve a work plan and a target. I need to earn some good money and save for two years for a certain investment. Once I’m done, I’ll be confident of a stable future for my family,” she says.
But fears persist that government measures to protect Kenyan workers abroad are more cosmetic than practical.
For instance, the NEA informational website is only available in English, despite the fact that many low-income Kenyans are more comfortable with Kiswahili.
A link on the website promising “Help Lines To Get Help” leads nowhere. (Ms Okoki expressed hope that a helpline will be opened soon, but was unable to offer a concrete timeline for its launch.)
And unlike some migrant-sending countries, such as Bangladesh and the Philippines, the Kenyan government has not yet established any safe houses for workers who flee abusive employers, or set a specific timeline for doing so.
Government agencies do not even seem to know how many Kenyans live in the Gulf, although estimates are at around 60,000.
But Paul Adhoch, the executive director of Trace Kenya, a Mombasa-based counter-trafficking NGO, estimates that there are at least 120,000 Kenyans working in the Middle East, roughly one-third of the group have been trafficked.
Adhoch said that despite repeated requests from Trace, the government has not made the content of the new bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE available to NGOs or to the public.
Worse, Adhoch says, “rogue brokers” have emerged to circumvent the new regulations.
“They say, ‘If you don’t want to wait for a training course, an official visa and a passport, pay me, and I can get you to the Middle East right now,’” said Adhoch.
“These rogue labour brokers traffic workers abroad with fake visas, false promises, and no way to get home. And there’s no disincentive for this.”
Nearly all Kenyan domestic workers abroad, he said, are women.
It is a concern that has also been raised by some of the authorised agents who view the rogue brokers as a threat to smooth migration.
“Before the government’s involvement, we were about 1,050,” says Rosemary Anyiro.
“Today, there are 132 authorised agencies. The question is, where did the rest go to? It means they are around, all over the place since they still have on them their (illegal) contracts,” says Anyiro.
Kenya’s economic and employment crises are driving this. Women are underrepresented in all sectors of the workforce, according to a 2018 report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, therefore risky opportunities in the Middle East often seem like the only option.
And for the 42 percent of Kenyans who live below the poverty line, support from abroad can be a lifesaver — financial remittances account for 2.5 percent of Kenya’s GDP.
“There are few opportunities in this country for low-skilled workers and traditionally in Kenya, domestic workers, who are mainly women, are underpaid by employers who do not respect the set minimum wage, and there is hardly any enforcement.
“In this case, they opt for the opportunities abroad where they are promised better pay,” Murogo, who was instrumental in development of the domestic workers training curriculum, says.
As economic need continues to push Kenyan women abroad, fears persist that tragedy could repeat itself.
In some ways, it already has. Despite Neema Khamis’ own horrifying experience in the Middle East, her younger cousin recently took a job in Bahrain.
But after only three weeks, she returned home – wounds still visible on her face from beatings.
“The government may be well-meaning, but I do not think it can change the attitude those people have towards domestic workers from Africa or Kenya; they view us as slaves,” she says.
Rugene is a Consulting Editor. Jillian Keenan is a contributing journalist for the Fuller Project for International Reporting, a non-profit newsroom investigating issues that most impact women