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EXPLAINER: Five reasons why it's hard to stop migrant abuse in the Gulf

by Maya Gebeilly | @GebeilyM | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 October 2021 09:55 GMT

A foreign labourer looks into the camera at a construction site in Dubai May 28, 2008. REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES)

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Migrants in the Arab states sent home over $124 billion in 2017, with UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar all in the top 10

From beatings to unpaid wages, migrant workers face regular abuse in the Gulf - with hundreds of African workers forcibly deported from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) earlier this year.

Several of the deportees told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they are struggling back home, with their past obliterated and no papers or money to start over.

Workers from Uganda, Nigeria, and Cameroon said they could not secure backpay, compensation for personal belongings they were barred from retrieving before deportation, or even an official answer on the cause of detention.

Here's a rundown of the main reasons why it is so hard to secure protection for some 23 million migrants working in the Gulf:


The lack of justice for migrants can be traced back to "kafala" sponsorship system that ties a worker's visa to their employer, seen by rights groups as modern-day slavery.

It is used across most of the Gulf, where growing numbers are flocking from East Africa to construction, hospitality, and security jobs.

Many work in unsafe or abusive environments, others suffer restrictions on their movements or communications, and some are jailed or deported - typically for residency violations but sometimes without a declared reason.

"Kafala is at the root of this. It essentially means impunity for abuses against workers," said Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

If an employer fires a worker or reports them as "absconding", that employee could face detention and deportation with no access to a lawyer, according to Migrant-Rights.org, a Gulf-based advocacy organisation for migrant workers.


The risk of being sent home empty-handed makes most workers reluctant to speak up, said Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan working as a security guard in Qatar until his deportation in August.

"The fear (is) that you might get sent back home, back to all the problems and hardships, that you might not even get justice if you raise your voice," he said.

Even countries dismantling parts of the kafala system, like Qatar, maintain some restrictions on changing jobs or bans on migrant labour unions, according to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, which promotes human rights in business.


Migrants in the Gulf work under largely undemocratic authorities that do not prioritise civic rights: many are monarchies that do not hold elections and do not tolerate public criticism.

"We're talking about countries with zero transparency," said Ali Mohamed, a researcher at Migrant-Rights.org. 

"How can you do anything when there is no democratic transparent process?"

The ministries of interior or defence often have greater political weight than labour ministries, which means worker issues are frequently resolved through security measures like detentions and deportations.

"In Gulf countries, 'interior' is the mother of all ministries. They are under the least pressure to implement any reforms," said Mohamed.     


Major rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, do not have a physical presence in most Gulf countries, where they say they would not be able to work freely.

Workers deported from the UAE after June said even Emirati lawyers they hired had been able to get few answers.

"There's a hesitancy by local lawyers to take on cases. People who get detained en masse are low-income migrant workers - so lawyers know it's hard to reverse a ruling of deportation and it won't pay much," Mohamed said.



Migrants said their own embassies had not pushed hard enough to get them out of jail or prevent the deportations.

"When you get back home, who will fight for you? No one," asked Bidali, who has been desperately searching for a job since he was deported to Kenya.

Some countries do act. Ethiopia in 2013 banned its nationals from doing low-skilled jobs in the Middle East following widespread reports of abuse.

But with massive unemployment at home and thousands still finding ways to migrate, it lifted the ban in 2018 after passing a law aimed at better protecting migrant workers. 

Bans ultimately fail because recruiting companies can always turn to regions with fewer regulations and even cheaper labour, said Begum, creating "a race to the bottom".        


According to the International Labour Organization, migrants in the Arab states sent home over $124 billion in 2017, with UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar all in the top 10.

Money that workers send home from abroad is one of the largest sources of foreign exchange for many countries - vital for trading with the rest of the world.

"This is a power dynamic," said Begum of Human Rights Watch.

"Countries of origin simply don't have the same leverage when speaking to host countries, as they are quite reliant on remittances."

Related stories:

Cameroonian migrants deported from UAE face conflict or exile 

Kenyan worker's arrest shows power, and peril, of online advocacy

'They told us they hate Africans': Hundreds detained, deported from Abu Dhabi