Sarah was one of millions of Filipino girls who dreamt of a brighter future overseas. Now she is fighting for her life.

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Considering that Karim Balabagan's 16-year-old daughter is on death row in the United Arab Emirates, he is an extraordinarily optimistic man. The optimism has shaky foundations. His daughter, Sarah, was sentenced to death last month for killing her employer, whom she stabbed 34 times; she claims she acted in self-defence after he raped and assaulted her. She was jailed for seven years, but after a retrial - requested by President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines - this was replaced by the death penalty. Her appeal against the sentence will be heard today.

Mr Balabagan, a 48-year-old father of seven and grandfather of three, has the weathered look of someone much older. Luck has passed his family by. They live in a wooden hut in the Muslim area of the southern Philippines, in a village so insignificant that its name appears only on the most detailed of maps. Mr Balabagan insists it is called Simuay Bridge; his son Mohamad says the name is Crossing Simuay. The confusion reflects the lack of documentation about this part of the country, which seems to be much further from the capital, Manila, than the 560 miles on the maps.

Sarah Balabagan is typical of the thousand or so Filipinos who leave their country every day to join 4.2 million of their compatriots overseas doing jobs that nobody else wants to do. Like 40 per cent of those who leave, she travelled with false papers and was sent by an unregistered recruiting agency, thus joining the ranks of the many so-called "undocumented" workers whose departure breaks every rule in a rulebook punctuated with holes.

Sarah Balabagan's passport says the diminutive, baby-faced girl is 27 years of age; she was 15 when it was issued. If she had gone through the normal legal channels designed to protect migrant workers, she would need to have been 25 to obtain the necessary documentation to work as a domestic helper overseas.

False documents are easy to obtain, says Leah Yogyog, spokeswoman for the Overseas Workers Welfare Association, a government body based in Manila. She says there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of illegal recruitment agencies which seem able to bribe their way through the bureaucratic labyrinth with ease, even to the extent of personally taking their charges through airport immigration areas.

Sarah was given a false birth certificate. The illegal recruiters who arranged the documents are believed to have been her uncle and aunt, working as subcontractors for a registered agency which, like many others, does a sideline in contracts for under-age girls from the provinces.

Mr Balabagan does not like questions about the way his daughter was recruited, saying the recruiters were "very distant cousins" who used to visit his home town. "I did not agree to the idea of her going, but her mother prevailed by saying she was only trying to help feed the family and pay for the children to study," he says. His wife, Bai, stares resolutely at the floor as her husband subtly shifts the onus of blame for the ill-fated decision to let Sarah go the UAE.

Some commentators in the Manila press have blamed the parents for sending their daughter abroad at the age of 15, but Mr Balabagan insists it was her decision: "She decided to go; she did not ask permission."

Filipinos have been migrant workers since the 18th century, when the first overseas workers left to labour as orange-pickers in Hawaii. Since then the numbers going overseas have swelled, peaking in the mid-Eighties during the oil price boom. Because so many Filipinos speak English, they have found it easier than other Asian workers to find employment.

Mrs Yogyog says the government has appealed to workers not to leave the country through illegal channels and not to send young girls to be domestic workers, particularly to the Middle East. Sometimes they travel in appalling conditions - a group of 30 Filipinos was recently discovered crammed into a container truck in Romania, trying to make their way to Italy.

None of the bad news about illegal migration seems to deter new recruits. Mrs Yogyog suggests that until the government ensures that people are paid fair wages across the board, continuing migration is inevitable. She stresses that the government would like to do more to stop workers leaving the country through unregistered agents, but "they have the constitutional right to travel - we cannot stop them".

In Simuay Bridge the constitutional niceties may have little meaning, but the grinding poverty is all too real. Mr Balabagan estimates that more than 100 of the village's 4,000 residents are working overseas as domestic helpers. Most residents scrape a living by farming or digging out sand and gravel and delivering it to the nearby city of Cotabato.

Karim is the only member of the Balabagan family in regular employment. The others sometimes find casual jobs buying and selling sand and gravel. Karim earns 112 pesos a day (about pounds 2.60) as a delivery man. With rice - a staple food - costing 220 pesos a kilogram, wages of this kind do not go very far. Poverty is the main recruiting agent for Filipino workers overseas, but Mrs Yogyog has undertaken her own study which shows they also go "because it's an adventure; they want to travel".

Conditions for domestic workers in the Middle East are particularly harsh. Many work 16 hours a day without a day off. Often they are not given rooms of their own, so they sleep with the children on the floor of a kitchen or on kitchen tables. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, the deeply religious Filipino Catholics are forbidden to practise their religion, and resort to covert prayer. Maltreatment, including sexual harassment, is not uncommon for female workers, although many are too ashamed to report it.

Sarah Balabagan's troubles began shortly after her arrival, according to her father. He says she wrote the family a letter saying that her predecessor had warned her that her employer, Almas Mohammed al-Baloushi, was "sexually obsessed". He is said to have offered her money and jewellery in exchange for her virginity.

At first Sarah was unsure what her employer wanted, and asked Filipino workers in the neighbourhood what she should do. "She did not want to give in to her employer," says her father. "He accused her of being hard- headed and said any other helper would be prepared to do what he wanted them to do." In desperation she fled the house and found another employer, but Mr Al-Baloushi found out where she had moved to and demanded her return, saying he had paid her air fare and other expenses and was therefore entitled to her services.

Sarah should have been earning the equivalent of 4,000 pesos a month (pounds 95), making her the family's most important breadwinner. They never received a single peso from her ill-fated venture, because the illegal recruitment agents had a claim on her first eight months' salary, supposedly to pay for the air fare, illegal documents and other costs.

She arrived in the UAE on 29 May last year. On 19 July she killed her employer. A letter was in the post from her father urging her to come home or find another employer, but she never received it. She told the UAE court that the provocation became too much when Mr Al-Baloushi attacked and sexually assaulted her. She retaliated with a knife and awaited arrest.

After she had been detained for a couple of weeks, another Filipina domestic worker alerted the embassy to her imprisonment. The family were told of her plight by the relatives who recruited her. "They said they would help," says Mr Balabagan. "If need be, they would go to the UAE. They did not, and to this day, we have never seen them again."

An Islamic court tried Sarah in October 1994 and found her guilty. It accepted her plea that she was acting in self-defence, and imposed a relatively light sentence of seven years' imprisonment. Publicity about the case was meanwhile building in the Philippines, where a row over the hanging of Flor Contemplacion, a domestic worker in Singapore, had just died down.

Mr Balabagan was introduced to Fidel Ramos, president of the Philippines, who promised his personal assistance in getting the case reviewed. Hopes were high as Sarah returned to court. The anticipation turned to shock when the new verdict was delivered. Yet again, appeals have been issued.

"They will exhaust all possibilities," says Mr Balabagan confidently. "Muslims can feel ill omens if bad things are going to come about. Right now, I don't feel ill omens. I am very confident that all Filipinos are praying for Sarah."

What would he say to the parents of any other young girl thinking of going to work in the UAE? "It is really not advisable to send young Filipinas overseas," he replies, "but I cannot advise others not to go. The prospect for earning money is much better there. It really makes them want to go."

Filipino migrant workers

around the world

It is estimated that only 60 per cent of overseas workers pass through legal channels.

United States 1,500,000* *includes

Saudi Arabia 1,300,000 naturalised

Italy 200,000 citizens

Canada 165,000*

UAE 156,000

Hong Kong 150,000

Kuwait 105,000

Japan 100,000

Spain 90,000

Britain 80,000

All figures are estimates.

Source: Kanlungan Centre Foundation, Manila