"I couldn't take it anymore," said the 26-year-old, a tidy woman in flip-flops who sought refuge last week in the Philippine Consulate in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "I ran away."

Lisa, who asked that her last name not be used, is one of more than 60 Filipina housemaids living in a makeshift shelter at the consulate, taking refuge from beatings, sexual harassment and unpaid wages.

Filipinas have been flooding into this fast-growing city to take maid's jobs paying as little as $160 a month.

But the influx has led to a doubling of those seeking shelter in recent weeks, with as many as five runaways a day fleeing to the consulate, labour attache Vicente Cabe said on Wednesday.

Lisa, like the others here, seeks counselling, help in getting back pay and a plane ticket home. It could have been worse. Some runaway maids show up with bruises or claim sexual assault. When they do, consular officials call police.

Indonesia responds

Already in the Emirates this year, three men have been jailed on allegations of raping Filipina maids. With so many reports of abuse, Indonesia recently banned unskilled women from working in the Gulf as maids.

Philippine Consul-General Generoso Calonge said he wanted his government to do the same.

"I couldn't take it anymore, I ran away" 

Lisa,
former maid in the Emirates

"Some of these women come here without a clue," Calonge said.

Cabe estimated there are 36,000 maids among more than 200,000 Filipinos working in the expatriate-dominated Emirates.

The maids work for local Arabs as well as European and Asian families. Nearly 2 million Filipinos live and work in the Arab countries on the Gulf, he said.

Dubai influx

The increase in abuse cases stems from two sources: the burgeoning number of maids arriving in Dubai, one of the world's fastest-growing cities, and the awareness that the consulate is a place to run, Calonge said.

The consulate is working with Dubai authorities to quickly return the women to the Philippines. Dozens of runaways are stuck at the consulate - with 25 sleeping in one room - until Cabe or other diplomats are able to persuade employers to pay back wages and buy them tickets home.

On Wednesday, two dozen of the women could be seen lunching together in a sweltering garage. "We can't let the number keep growing," Cabe said.

Abuse of maids and other low-paid migrant workers has long been a problem in wealthy Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates where foreigners dominate the work force.

Human rights groups

Last year, Human Rights Watch found Asian workers in Saudi Arabia faced systematic abuse, with some in conditions the organisation said were close to slavery.

"It's in the culture here," said Fatima Caminan, a social worker at the Philippine Consulate. "They see domestic workers as the lowest rung of society."

In Kuwait, three policemen were sentenced in May to as many as 10 years in jail for raping a Filipina maid who had fled her employer.

Even more common are the complaints of nonpayment from low-paid labourers from the Indian subcontinent, the linchpin of the development that has quickly modernized the Gulf.

Labourers protest

Many workers, mainly from Asia,
face exploitation in the Gulf

In April in Kuwait, 700 Bangladeshi workers overpowered guards and ransacked their embassy to protest unpaid salaries.

In Dubai in February, 1500 workers from Pakistan, Nepal and India blocked a highway to draw attention to their plight: They had not been paid in more than six months.

Protests are common among construction workers here, many of whom live in crowded camps on the edge of the desert while they build the five-star hotels that line Dubai's glittering skyline.

Runaway maids, too, have become a staple of local news reports. Sri Lanka and Nepal are making it tougher for women to work in the Gulf because their embassies are overwhelmed by reports of abuse.

Cabe said the Philippine government has begun discouraging maids and other unskilled workers from migrating here. "Ninety percent of our problems involves people in the unskilled category, mainly maids," he said.