We’ve known migration for a very long time. In the West and the East, in times of war and in times of peace, in different forms, for different reasons, people have migrated to, from or through different places over the centuries.
At the turn of the last century, the increasingly globalized economy contributed to waves of migration fuelled by poverty, lack of employment opportunities, as well as political, religious and racial oppression.
Who among us does not understand the meaning of migration or its pervasiveness in our countries and in our homes?
In one home, a father has migrated in search of better work. In another, a family has migrated in search of a better life. In yet another, a migrant worker from Sri Lanka or the Philippines has come to seek a livelihood in domestic work.
Who among us does not understand the cruelty of formal and informal, visible and invisible borders? Who among us has not stood in line for hours waiting for an entry visa? Or listened to the gross violations of people’s dignity as humans are called “illegal” and made to be feared for populist electoral campaigns?
We all have the right to freedom of movement. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees it. It is the duty of states to ensure the dignity of migrant men and women and protect them from all violence and oppression. To be “illegal” is not to be without rights. Towards protecting these rights, the UN General Assembly enacted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families on 18 December 1990. And yet, only 54 states out of 198 have ratified this convention, among them merely five countries from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Syria.
The other MENA states featured in this story of migration to / from / in the region, specifically Lebanon, the Arab Gulf states and Israel, have not even signed the convention.
18 December became International Migrants Day, a day to highlight the struggles and rights of migrant workers. In MENA, migrant workers survive severe violence and exploitation under the kafala system in the Arab Gulf, exemption from the Labour Law in Lebanon, arbitrary arrests and mass expulsion in Algeria, torture, detention and rape in Libya, cruel and illegal crackdowns in Morocco, and forced and illegal deportation in Israel.
We demand policies that ensure dignity for migrants everywhere, whether they are leaving, arriving in, or currently living in MENA.
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THE KAFALA SYSTEM
The kafala system operates in all of the Arab Gulf states and Lebanon, among other countries in the region. It is a system that essentially binds migrant workers to their employer, who acts as their official “sponsor” (or kafeel) from the moment they enter the country and throughout their period of employment.
The system grants wide-ranging powers to employers, facilitates forced labour and leaves workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. It essentially delegates to employers the government’s role of regulating workers and ensuring their protection.
Workers need their employer’s permission to change jobs or even, in the case of Saudi Arabia, to leave the country. They can be arrested and deported if their employer reports them as having “absconded” from their job, even when they are fleeing abuse. Passport confiscation is also a rampant practice, making it even more difficult for migrant workers to escape exploitative labour conditions.
Women domestic workers are the group of migrant workers most at risk of abuse under this system. Predominantly coming from South Asia and working in private households providing child care, cooking and cleaning, their isolation in the homes and their direct dependence on their employer means they are particularly exposed to being exploited and abused.
Kafala in Gulf countries
In Bahrain, migrant workers make up over half the country’s workforce and face labour abuse and exploitation. Some have been stranded after their companies failed to pay them their wages. In June 2018, a group of mostly Indian and Bangladeshi workers took part in protests demanding salaries owed, despite Bahrain imposing heavy restrictions on the right to free assembly.
Migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates are the fifth largest migrant population in the world. Despite a few recent labour reforms introduced by the government with the stated intention of improving workers’ rights, migrant workers, who make up the majority of the population, remain bound by the kafala system, exposing them to labour abuse.
The same is true in Kuwait, where female domestic workers are the most vulnerable and at risk of physical, sexual and psychological abuse by their employers. Following the murder of a Filipina domestic worker by her employers in February, the Philippines imposed a ban on the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait and facilitated the voluntary repatriation of thousands of migrant workers. The ban was later lifted and a new agreement signed between both countries.
Migrant domestic workers are also denied effective legal protection in Oman. They are excluded from the provisions of the labour law while not benefiting from any meaningful protection under the current domestic workers law. A plan to introduce mandatory health insurance for all residents in the country has been discussed but not implemented to date.
Saudi Arabia, with 11 million migrant workers living under the kafala system, has the largest migrant population in the region and the fourth largest in the world. The kingdom is the only Gulf state that continues to require all migrant workers to obtain an exit permit in order to leave the country. This requirement, combined with the difficulties workers face in switching employers, makes them dependent on their employers and increases their vulnerability to abuses, including forced labour. They are also subjected to unfair trials and the death penalty. On 29 October 2018, Saudi Arabia executed Tuti Tursilawati, an Indonesian domestic worker and mother of one, and did not inform her family until one week after.
Despite some recent promising measures, the majority of the more than 1.9 million migrant workers in Qatar continue to be at serious risk of exploitation and abuse by their employers. This is due a to lack of protection in Qatar’s laws, coupled with poor implementation and enforcement.
Over the past year, the government has passed several new pieces of legislation related to migrant workers as part of a three-year technical co-operation project agreed with the International Labour Organization in October 2017. These measures have included setting a temporary minimum wage, introducing a law for domestic workers, establishing new dispute committees and a workers’ support and insurance fund. It has also ratified two important international human rights treaties, albeit indicating that it will not abide by some of their key obligations, for example on the right for workers to form trade unions. It has also partially abolished the “exit permit” for most workers, meaning those benefiting can now leave the country without their employer’s permission.
Taken together, these measures represent promising steps in the right direction. However, the reality for many migrant workers in Qatar will remain harsh until the kafala system is completely abolished and the reform process completed and fully implemented for all workers without exception.
Case Study: Mercury MENA Workers
In just one case documented by Amnesty International in 2018, at least 78 migrant workers employed by MENA Mercury, an engineering company working on projects linked to the World Cup, were stranded for months in Qatar penniless and living in squalid conditions. The company took advantage of Qatar’s kafala system to exploit them after it failed to pay them thousands of dollars in wages and work benefits.
Lebanon is home to over 200,000 migrant domestic workers from Asian and African countries, including the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Cameroon. They are excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law and governed by the kafala system, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
In early 2015, a group of these women formed a trade union – the first of its kind in the region – to advocate for the rights of domestic workers. The Ministry of Labour, however, refused to recognize the union and considered it illegal. Rather than protect the domestic workers’ right to organize, Lebanese security forces cracked down on women unionists and community leaders. One such organizer was Sujana Rana, who was deported (ironically on International Human Rights Day) by the Lebanese General Security in 2016.
We met with Sujana Rana in Nepal, two years after her deportation, and she shared her story:
The Lebanese government should uphold migrant domestic workers’ rights to freedom of association and assembly, as well as the right to collective bargaining. They should immediately cease the exclusion of migrant weeks from the Lebanese Labour Law.
For over seven decades, Israel has blocked the right of return of more than 5 million Palestinian refugees, the majority of them living in camps in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and neighbouring countries. In recent years it has also adopted cruel and discriminatory policies towards African refugees and asylum-seekers. In January 2018, the government launched a plan to force tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, to return to their countries of origin or to unnamed “third countries”. Those who refused faced indefinite detention. The Israeli government claimed the scheme would facilitate “voluntary departures” of “infiltrators”, the term used in Israeli law to describe irregular migrants.
The government was forced to suspend its plan in April 2018 after it failed to show the Supreme Court the agreements it claimed it had agreed with “third countries”. Whatever their status, such agreements would be illegal under international law as they would violate the prohibition of non-refoulement, that is the transfer of anyone to a place where they would be at real risk of persecution and other serious human rights violations, or where they would not be protected against such a transfer later.
In recent months, Moroccan authorities have increased their crackdown against migrants, partly in an effort to control irregular migration from Morocco to Spain. In September 2018, Amnesty International documented the relentless and large-scale crackdown on thousands of sub-Saharan migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees by the Moroccan police together with the Royal Gendarmerie and the Auxiliary Forces.
The security forces have carried out particularly violent raids on informal settlements and makeshift camps occupied by migrants around Tangiers and Nador, the crossing point into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. In some cases documented by Amnesty International, security forces set camps on fire, burned migrants’ belongings and stole mobile phones.
One migrant, who has lived in Morocco for four years, told Amnesty International that the Moroccan police and gendarmerie violently broke into his house in Mesnana neighbourhood in Tangiers at 4am in the morning on 26 August. He said: “The police came in the middle of the night wearing masks, broke our door and started seizing the members of my family, including children.”
Moroccan nationals who risk the perilous boat journey to Europe in search of better work opportunities also face brutal violence from the authorities. On 25 September, the Moroccan navy intercepted a boat with at least 15 Moroccan nationals in Moroccan waters close to the town of Fnideq on the Mediterranean coast. They shot at them to make them stop the boat, killing a 19-year-old woman on board, Hayet Belkacem. Amnesty International spoke to Hayet’s mother, Khedouj Hamdouni, who gave the testimony below.
Morocco urgently needs to adopt policy that regulates the entry, stay and exit of people in a way that is consistent with international human rights law.
“My daughter Hayet would have been 20 years old in November. She was the eldest of my five children, the bravest, always there for her brothers and sisters. She was my everything. She left a huge void in our family that nothing can ever fill.
Before she was killed… Hayet was in her second year of law school. She wanted to become a teacher or a lawyer.
When Hayet decided to become a harraga*, it was to join her aunt who raised her and now lives in Spain. She was a dreamer with a lot of aspirations. She hoped for a better future.
The authorities killed her. They killed her, and they did nothing to throw light on what happened. The authorities did nothing but monitor our house during her funeral. We don’t know what to do any more… Nothing will bring back Hayet, but we still want the truth.”
* A word from the Maghrebi dialect of Arabic that literally means “someone who burns”, a reference to the practice of those who burn their ID papers and seek their fortune in other countries as a last resort when the right to freedom of movement is not granted.
Torture, detention, exploitation and rape are daily horrors for many refugees and migrants in Libya. But, instead of ending these abuses, Europe is helping Libya to trap people in hell. By training and providing the Libyan coastguard with ships to transport migrants back to the country, European leaders are contributing to unspeakable suffering.
A year after the emergence of shocking footage of migrants apparently being sold as merchandise in Libya prompted frantic deliberations over the EU’s migration policy, a series of quick fixes and promises has not improved the situation for refugees and migrants.
Over the past two years EU member states have put in place a series of measures to block migration across the central Mediterranean, boosting the capacity of the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept sea crossings, striking deals with militias in Libya and hampering the work of NGOs carrying out search and rescue operations.
It’s crucial that Libyan and European leaders take action that actually protects migrants and refugees from horrific human rights abuses in Libya.
Thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are suffering horrific human rights abuses.
Stop the selling and detention of refugees and migrants in Libya
Over the past two decades Algeria has become a country of transit or final destination of many nationals from West and Central Africa looking for employment opportunities in a variety of sectors, mainly construction and agriculture. Yet despite the large number of Sub-Saharan migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in the country, Algeria still lacks a clear legal framework for migrant workers and has a law criminalizing irregular migration making it an offence punishable by up to five years in prison.
Arbitrary arrests and mass expulsions of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa have reached an all-time high, in stark contradiction of Algeria’s ratifying of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.