How Modeling Agencies Recruit Refugees from One of the World’s Largest Camps

Modeling agencies are actively recruiting young people who have escaped war-torn African nations and are grappling with severe poverty. These individuals fly to Europe to participate in fashion castings, but a significant number return within mere days or weeks, frequently burdened with substantial debts – The Sunday Times investigation found. 

The fashion industry has long grappled with issues of diversity and abuse, and a recent investigation by the Sunday Times delved into the potential exploitation of models by agencies and talent scouts who dangle the promise of a brighter future. Through interviews with numerous models and a comprehensive exploration of the tactics used by modeling agencies to attract young individuals from economically challenged African nations, the investigation exposed a troubling reality.

At the heart of this investigation are several aspiring models hailing from the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Turkana County, Kenya. Established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1992, the camp primarily serves displaced individuals from countries like Sudan and Ethiopia. It operates under the governance of the Department of Refugee Affairs, following the adoption of the Kenya Refugee Act in 2006.

Models who successfully pass the initial recruitment phase receive government-approved work permits to leave the refugee camp, allowing them to proceed to Nairobi. In the capital city, they are equipped with passports and visas, which pave the way for their journey to Europe. There, they are provided with accommodations and receive a weekly allowance ranging from €70 to €100 to cover their expenses.

However, the path is far from guaranteed success. Those who fail to secure sufficient paid work or are judged as unfit for the industry find themselves returning to Kenya. This journey back to the refugee camp can be fraught with challenges, as many models are considered too malnourished or inexperienced for the demanding world of modeling. To make matters worse, they often return with substantial debts owed to the agencies who had initially lured them with promises of prosperity.

South Sudanese model Alcol Malaul Jau, 23, shared her own disheartening experience with the Sunday Times: 

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

Sudanese model Alcol Malaul Jau

Jau had practiced walking in heels at her refugee camp before making her runway debut in February, an experience she described as “amazing.” However, within six months, she found herself back in her shared hut with her family, holding a balance sheet that revealed a debt of approximately €3,000.

Top South Sudanese model Achenrin Madit walks the runway for JW Anderson.

The agency responsible for recruiting Jau, Select Model Management, claimed that client feedback on her had been less favorable. The agency’s CEO, Matteo Puglisi, expressed his regrets, stating, “We lost thousands of euros on her. We have never asked for reimbursement. I am truly sorry she didn’t succeed. It wasn’t for the want of trying on our behalf.” Puglisi also clarified that issuing debt statements to models is a “fiscal obligation.” While the agency requests reimbursement twice, they refrain from pursuing legal action to recover the money.

The investigation uncovered that Nigerian businesswoman Joan Okorodudu, known as Mama or Auntie Joan, signed models to her agency, Isis Models, and subsequently promoted them to larger agencies like Select Model Management. It was also reported that after one model, Biliny Manyang, sought to leave Isis Models, she alleged that Okorodudu warned industry contacts not to work with her or risk having other models withdrawn.

In response to these claims, Okorodudu defended herself, stating, “I am the only person in the industry who takes care of these models financially and assists their families. Modeling and helping the youth is my passion.”

Amidst the controversy, some models took to social media to support Mama Joan, with captions like, “Joan has been doing everything for love.”

While stories of disappointment and debt are prevalent, there are success stories too. Individuals like Rejoice Chuol, an 18-year-old native of Kakuma who now resides in London, and Sudanese model Mari Malek, who was once a refugee, are making their mark in the fashion industry. Chuol recently graced the runway for Dolce & Gabbana at Milan Fashion Week and appeared in a magazine ad for H&M. She expressed her desire to be an ambassador for her country. Malek is establishing Runways to Freedom, a group that supports refugees working in the industry. According to Malek, “South Sudanese refugee models are the ‘it girls’, and I believe it is due to the fact the diversity and inclusion movement in the fashion industry has skyrocketed demand from people asking for more representation.” She emphasized the importance of African, dark-skinned, and black models, particularly those from South Sudan, renowned for their striking beauty and powerful presence.

Rejoice Chuol walking at the Miu Miu S/S 24 Show.

Puglisi of Select Model Management highlighted the agency’s commitment to making a difference by supporting models like Rejoice: “Bringing a model like Rejoice to the top level is really gratifying for us all at Select because we felt we did more to improve a world by improving the life of Rejoice… than if we brought a multimillionaire like Kendall Jenner to the same level. For the most, their families are no longer hungry.” Puglisi pointed out that using models from the African refugee camp enhances the diversity of fashion shows, asking, “Do you want to go back to all-white fashion shows?”

American model Carré Otis, who has worked alongside supermodels like Linda Evangelista, Carla Bruni, and Naomi Campbell, responded to the Times investigation.

“The investigation into refugee models shows we have reached a tipping point and a new low which is affecting some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Sadly, the deafening silence now is indicative of what we have experienced for decades.”

Carré Otis

American supermodel Carré Otis.

Otis serves on the board of Model Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to championing labor rights for individuals employed within the fashion industry. The organization is actively engaged in the fight for the Fashion Workers Act, a proposed legislation designed to oversee modeling agencies and address pervasive issues like debt bondage, one-sided contracts presented in languages models may not comprehend, and unsafe working conditions, among various other provisions.

“In most other professions, there are regulations and protections. In the modeling industry, there are few. I have spoken to models for years now, who are still forced to tolerate inappropriate conditions. The reason many do so is quite simple: if they were to speak out or protest, they could lose their job,” Otis wrote in the Times article. 

Demi Vitkute

Co-Founder & Editor

Demi Vitkute is a New York-based journalist and editor who’s passionate about reporting on the fashion industry, its problems, and its changemakers. She’s a founder of The Urban Watch Magazine and has written for The Washington Post, Inside Hook, and Promo Magazine, among others. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Emerson College.

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