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Dozens of models from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, Africa, alleged that they were exploited after they were promised a better life upon signing with a few well-known modeling agencies for big fashion events. Several of the alleged victims claimed that they were forced to return back to the impoverished camp when their performance failed to meet agency standards.

In an investigative piece published by The Times on Oct. 8, South Sudanese model Achol Malual Jau said that she was ecstatic when she received an opportunity to walk for London Fashion Week after signing with Select Model Management in September 2022. But the young muse’s dreams came crashing down when she was forced to return back to Kakuma five months later. Jau’s walk was deemed unfit.

To make matters even worse, Jau alleged that the modeling agency sent her a €3,000 (approximately $3,177 U.S. dollars) balance sheet that she was expected to pay back for expenses incurred during the trip.

“I worked hard but came back with no money,” Jau told The Times. “A lot of people think I have money because I went to Europe — I say I have nothing.”

Nyawal Puot Chuol, 19, shared a similar story. 

The Kakuma resident claimed that she was flown to Paris Fashion Week with two other refugees after signing a modeling contract, but she returned home six days later. Casting agencies claimed that she was “too malnourished to work” and that her catwalk was “not good enough.”

Run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Kakuma refugee camp and its neighboring village, the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, has been home to over 190,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers. More than half of Kakumas residents are from South Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries.

According to The Times, modeling agencies have been coming to the Kenyan camp to scout for models, promising residents a better life with the hope of diversifying the catwalk. Over the summer, Select Model Management allegedly visited a hotel near Kakuma to search for models and “used a tape measure” to evaluate candidates’ sizes, according to the outlet.

Nyabalang Gatwech Pur Yien, 24, told The Times that she signed an English contract with the agency despite “barely” understanding the terms of the document. Yien speaks Nuer, a tribal language native to South Sudan. She left Kakuma only to return 17 days later, owing €2,769.46 (approximately $2,932 U.S. dollars). Her debts remain unpaid.

In a statement, Select Model Management CEO Matteo Puglisi claimed that the agency makes it “very clear” that they are not responsible for moving models to Europe permanently. Puglisi said, “Models come for shows for three to four weeks. Then they return home.”

He also claimed that the company loses hundreds of thousands of euros and pounds to transport refugee models to and from Kakuma. He noted that the debt receipts were a “fiscal obligation” and that they never asked for reimbursement.

Money doesn’t grow on trees for residents of Kakuma.

According to SCREENSHOT, 51,000 residents living in the Kenyan refugee camp receive cash assistance of $1 a week per household. Modeling can offer Kakuma residents life-changing financial stability, but it isn’t guaranteed upon entry into the fashion industry. International supermodel India Tuersley told the outlet that “it can take months or even years” before a model can begin to profit off of walking in shows.

Mari Malek, a Sudanese model, DJ and former refugee, is committed to being the change she wants to see in the industry. Malek is the founder of Runways to Freedom, an activist organization that supports refugee models “through advocacy, mental health support and mindfulness.”

The New York City-based muse told The Times that it’s time for the fashion industry to “wake up and ask themselves at what cost to young African lives their diversity and inclusion policies are fulfilled.”

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