By Rejimon Kuttappan
MUSCAT, March 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Qatar on Thursday denied it was violating a new labour law by blocking migrants from leaving the country, saying it was committed to enforcing reforms to improve the rights of millions of foreign workers.
A new law making it easier for migrants to change jobs and leave the oil-rich Gulf state - where many of them have been recruited to build soccer stadiums ahead of the 2022 Fifa World Cup - came into effect in December.
But rights groups say the new law is not being enforced and that scores of migrant workers from countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal have been refused permission to leave the country since the law was passed.
The Qatari government said in a statement that any suggestion it was not committed to enforcing the reforms or that it was denying the freedom of movement of foreign workers was "false".
Around 90 percent of Qatar's 2.5 million population are migrants. Many work in low paid construction jobs to build stadiums and infrastructure for the 2022 Fifa World Cup.
But Doha's "kafala" sponsorship system - under which migrants cannot change jobs or leave the country without their employer's permission - has come under scrutiny in recent years with allegations that the system amounts to forced labour.
Qatar passed a law on Dec. 13 scrapping the need for migrants to get exit permits from employers, and imposing fines on employers who confiscate workers' passports and withhold their salaries.
But trade unionists say migrants still require an exit permit from the government - and that more than 200 migrants have been blocked from leaving Qatar since the law was passed.
The Qatari government confirmed that 213 out of 184,551 requests for exit permits have been denied, but said this was because the individuals were facing criminal charges.
"We have explicitly stated that expatriates would be prevented from leaving Qatar if there is strong evidence that the expatriate has committed fraud or is attempting to evade prosecution for a crime," the government statement said.
The International Labour Organization has given Doha until November to implement the reforms or potentially face an investigation into the forced labour of migrants in the lead up to hosting the World Cup.
(Reporting by Rejimon Kuttappan; Writing by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla; Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)