KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - South-east Asian governments' efforts to stop women from going abroad for domestic work are putting their citizens at greater risk of becoming victims of trafficking and exploitation, the United Nations warned.
Nearly half of the world's 53 million domestic workers are from Asia, most of them women from impoverished families seeking higher incomes abroad.
However, horrific cases of maids being beaten and raped have prompted some governments - including Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia - to stop sending domestic workers to certain countries in recent years.
In a study released on Friday, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UN Women said such restrictions, designed to protect women from abuse, actually exposed women to greater risk.
"Even if there are barriers to women's regular migration, it doesn't stop women from migrating," Anna Olsen, a technical specialist from the ILO, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by Skype from Hanoi.
Women end up migrating "irregularly" - entering the destination country and then working without documentation or permission.
"Irregular migrants have fewer protections in destination countries, which means they are more vulnerable to forced labour, exploitation and human trafficking," Olsen said.
For the report, released to coincide with the International Domestic Workers' Day, researchers studied bans imposed by Cambodia in 2011 and Myanmar in 2014, and found they led to a rise in illegal recruiters smuggling women abroad.
The UN agencies said the lack of a legal route made women domestic workers more vulnerable, as they were scared to seek help when they were abused.
"Within three months of going, I was tortured and wanted to come back... they told me that even if I was killed no one would know," a Cambodian domestic worker said in the report.
The study said these restrictions, which primarily impact women, were a setback for female empowerment.
"Women make decisions to migrate despite known risks, judging that potential gains outweigh potential problems. Many women report satisfaction and empowerment through migration, as they can earn much higher wages than at home," it said.
Globally about 200 million migrants, half of whom are women, sent home almost half a trillion dollars in 2016, helping to lift families out of poverty by providing financial stability and access to education, the International Fund for Agricultural Development said this week.