MENA governments must end discriminatory crackdowns and abuse of migrants

Governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are collectively failing to protect the rights of migrants in their countries, said Amnesty International, marking International Migrants Day.

Across the region, migrants regularly face discrimination, exploitation and other forms of abuse as well as in some cases arbitrary arrest, detention and unlawful expulsion. Whether they are sub-Saharan African migrants passing through North African countries on their way to Europe or domestic or construction workers from Asia living in the Gulf or other parts of the Middle East, too often they are unprotected by labour laws, left vulnerable to abuse or are forcibly deported because their irregular status is criminalized. 

“Governments across MENA are abysmally failing to protect migrants living in or passing through their countries, fuelling shocking levels of abuse,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s MENA Research and Advocacy Director. 

“While pressure on governments in the Gulf is in some cases forcing reforms to legal frameworks for migrant workers, they need to do much more to improve protection in practice. Meanwhile, North African governments should be facing more heat for their discriminatory crackdowns to stem irregular migration that have seen tens of thousands arbitrarily rounded up, detained in often horrific conditions and sometimes unlawfully expelled en masse.” 

Governments across MENA are abysmally failing to protect migrants living in or passing through their countries, fuelling shocking levels of abuse

Philip Luther, MENA Research and Advocacy Director

According to the International Labour Organization, there were 17.8 million migrant workers hosted in Arab states as of 2013. The majority came from Asia, with a significant number from Africa as well. It has estimated that some 600,000 migrants are victims of forced labour in these states. 

In Algeria, a discriminatory crackdown against sub-Saharan migrants, as well as refugees and asylum-seekers, spiked in 2018, with security forces arbitrarily arresting and detaining tens of thousands and unlawfully deporting them to Niger and Mali. Many were expelled even though they had valid visas or consular papers.

Amnesty International is launching a campaign this week to call for an end to the arbitrary arrest and mass expulsion of migrants by the Algerian authorities.

Over the past two decades the number of migrants in Algeria has increased significantly, yet the country still lacks a clear legal framework for migrant workers and has no asylum law. A 2008 law on foreign nationals treats irregular migration as a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison.

In neighbouring Morocco, authorities have also stepped up their crackdown against migrants in 2018, partly in an effort to stem irregular migration from Morocco to Spain. Since July, more than 5,000 people have been swept up in often violent raids, placed on buses and then abandoned in areas close to the Algerian border, despite the fact that Morocco introduced new asylum and migration policy commitments in 2013 to bring its practices into line with international standards. 

In Libya, alongside refugees and asylum-seekers, economic migrants face appalling treatment at the hands of armed groups, militias, smugglers and the Libyan authorities. Thousands are held indefinitely in notorious detention centres where they face systematic abuse, including torture, rape and extortion. 

According to the International Labour Organization, migrants in the Arab Gulf states account for more than 10% of all migrants globally and make up the majority of the population in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (and more than 80% of the population in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates). However, across the Gulf migrant workers face rampant discrimination and abuse. The exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system grants employers excessive powers to control their employees, leaving them at risk of widespread labour violations. 

Saudi Arabia has the largest number of migrant workers in the region – an estimated 11 million – and is the only Gulf country that places a general requirement on all migrant workers to obtain an “exit permit”, meaning they need permission from their employer in order to leave the country. In Bahrain, hundreds of migrant workers have been stranded after their companies failed to pay them their wages. In the United Arab Emirates, despite some reforms to improve migrants’ rights the migrant workers who make up the majority of the population remain bound by the kafala system, exposing them to labour abuse. 

Across the region migrant domestic workers lack legal protections and are at risk of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. For instance, in Kuwait and Oman domestic migrant workers have been vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and earlier this year a Filipina domestic worker was murdered by her employers in Kuwait. 

Under international pressure over its treatment of migrant workers building the infrastructure for the football World Cup it will host in 2022, Qatar has introduced a series of reforms over the past year. Most recently Qatar introduced a new law to partially scrap the “exit permit”, which prevented migrant workers from leaving the country without their employer’s permission. However, the law fails to apply to domestic workers, who remain unprotected by labour laws, and much more needs to be done to tackle labour exploitation in practice.

The rampant discrimination and abuse faced by migrants in MENA is disgraceful and should be a stain on the consciences of governments across the region

Heba Morayef, MENA Regional Director at Amnesty International

In Lebanon, more than 200,000 domestic workers from Asian and African countries are also governed by a kafala system, excluded from labour law protections and denied rights enjoyed by other workers. Migrant domestic workers often report exploitative working conditions that amount to forced labour, as well as verbal, physical and sexual abuse, racism and discrimination, and impeded access to justice. Instead of taking measures to protect domestic workers’ rights the authorities have repressed those seeking to improve respect for them and failed to recognize a union for domestic workers set up in 2015.

In Israel, in January 2018 authorities initiated a new procedure to forcibly deport African asylum-seekers, labelled as “infiltrators” and treated as irregular migrants, to their country of origin or an unspecified “third country” in Africa. Those who refused faced indefinite detention. Between 2014 and 2018, more than 4,000 African asylum-seekers were unlawfully deported to a “third country” without procedural guarantees.

“The rampant discrimination and abuse faced by migrants in MENA is disgraceful and should be a stain on the consciences of governments across the region, which are lagging far behind on migrants’ rights,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s MENA Regional Director.

“It is time for these governments to acknowledge migrants as fellow human beings with rights that must be upheld and to ensure they are treated with dignity. As a first step all states must introduce reforms to ensure that all migrant workers are fully protected by labour laws and that, more generally, migrants do not face harassment, arbitrary detention or unlawful deportation.”