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The case of models recruited in refugee camps

An exclusive Sunday Times investigation has brought to light how agencies and talent scouts exploit models with the promise of a better future

The case of models recruited in refugee camps An exclusive Sunday Times investigation has brought to light how agencies and talent scouts exploit models with the promise of a better future

Increasingly, we discuss the lack of diversity on the catwalks. We wonder why fashion weeks are still dominated by white, same-sex, able-bodied, very young and thin models (and models), or why there is no more room for other ethnicities, ages and sizes, but have we ever asked ourselves what the price of inclusion is? That's what the Sunday Times has done, using interviews with dozens of models to investigate how modelling agencies recruit young people who have fled war-torn African countries and live in extreme poverty with the promise of a better future. The research focused mainly on the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and found that more and more girls are being selected to model in Europe, but very few find their fortune. Most of them return within a few days or weeks without having earned anything, but on the contrary with a lot of debt.

In search of the new Adut Akech

Insiders say that interest in African models has increased due to the demand for inclusion and thanks to the success of Alek Wek and Adut Akech, who fled Sudan to the UK as a teenager and was the face of brands such as Chanel, Dior and Victoria's Secret. Carole White, director of Premier Model Management and former agent of Naomi Campbell, confirms this: "At the moment it is very fashionable to have an African model. Sudanese are very much in demand. There is so much demand for African models: women, men, boys and girls. When the Berlin Wall came down, the look was Eastern European. Now we hardly look at Russian girls." Most brands don't know where the model they hire is from or what happens to them after a casting or photo shoot. They rely on the agency to behave ethically and pay the model what is due to her. But this often does not happen. On the contrary.

The Kakuma camp

Kakuma is located in northern Kenya, near the border with Uganda and South Sudan, and is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. It was established in 1992 and is managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 280.000 people are housed there who have fled several warring countries in East and Central Africa. More than half are from South Sudan, the poorest country in the world, where civil and tribal wars have killed and displaced millions. The camp stretches 15 miles, has 55 schools and is dotted with shops selling clothes, household items and food. Houses are built of mud bricks with corrugated iron roofs, toilets are holes in the ground, clean water is rationed and electricity is scarce. Food rations have recently been cut by 40 per cent and many people live on just one meal a day. People living in these conditions are exposed to extreme poverty and the risk of disease. Many young women are forcibly married and, as Amnesty International reports, Lgbtqia+ residents are regularly subjected to hate crimes, violence and other serious human rights violations.

How scouting agencies exploit the illusion of a better future

For the people of Kakuma, modelling is like Willy Wonka's golden ticket. And that's exactly what the agencies take advantage of, promising great results while ignoring the risks and the high probability of being back at square one, with no money and no prospects. Local scouts search for talent and send photos to European leaders thousands of kilometres away, while some scour the Instagram accounts of refugees. What happens to those chosen? Models who make it through the first round of recruitment are given a work permit or permission from the government to leave the refugee camp and are taken to Nairobi, where they are given a passport and visa and booked on a flight to Europe. There they are put up in accommodation and given a purse of 70-100 euros a week for food and expenses. The models stay in Europe for a few weeks, but if they don't get enough paid work or are found unfit, they return to Kenya. And that's where the problems start. For every one model who makes it, there are many who, as they themselves testified to the Sunday Times, return to the camp because they are deemed too malnourished or inexperienced for the work.

In addition to the damage they do, the con

The modelling industry operates on a debt system. European agencies finance visas and flights, which usually have to be paid back when the model starts earning money. So if a model is rejected, for whatever reason, or doesn't earn enough, she not only returns to her starting position, but ends up with a pile of debt to the agency. For Matteo Puglisi of the Select agency, which has also placed Sienna Miller, David Gandy and Stella Tennant, and Joan Okorodudu, a Nigerian businesswoman who runs the Isis Models agency, making a declaration of debt for models is "a fiscal obligation", as he is quoted in the Sunday Times article As well as a minor inconvenience for "the chance of a better future" Puglisi also stresses that the agency is "very clear" that models will not be permanently transferred to Europe and that there is no guarantee of success. All statements with which the Sunday Times interviewees disagree.

Inclusion must not be synonymous with exploitation


This mechanism applies regardless of the girl's background, but when it is touted as the only way out to what is surely a better future, it sounds like a ploy of intolerable cruelty. It is a clear signal that the system is sick and needs to be revolutionised. As Peter Adediran, founder of London law firm Pail, which specialises in media and technology law and has 21 years' experience in the modelling industry, reminds us, models often come from Eastern Europe or Africa, are vulnerable, don't understand contracts and their parents think they are giving them the opportunity to realise their dreams while agencies sell them illusions. "They are so young that they don't have experience in handling money and finances and don't understand the sides of the contracts they get. Agencies should have the responsibility to be clear and educate models from the moment they discover them and what they expect from them." But ringing even louder and more necessary are the words of Nyabalang Gatwech Pur Yien, who is one of the young women who have not had the promised luck: "If the world wants models from refugee camps, it should take care of them. We are not scum, we are human and we need to be treated like human, with dignity."