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HRW Overview of Migrant Workers Rights in the Middle East in 2009

On December 20, 2009

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published last week a summary of the reports and research they've conducted over the last year on migrant rights. The end-year report highlighted the lack of protection of migrant workers in many Middle Eastern countries.

In Kuwait, the report focused on the Sponsorship system and lack of protection for domestic workers under Kuwaiti law. The law does not allow workers to leave their sponsor without his consent, even in cases of abuse. There is also the absence of a clear mechanism by which workers can claim unpaid wages, and they are thus forced to settle for deals brokered by their embassies.

In Saudi Arabia, migrant workers continue to be exposed to labor rights violations and persecution on spurious charges such as sorcery, adultery and theft. The need of migrant workers to secure an exit permit from the kingdom results in many cases of forced labor, according to HRW. The reforms in Saudi Arabia's labor laws in July 2009 offer insufficient protection for migrant workers and leave them vulnerable to abuse.

In Lebanon, 2009 ended with a wave of suicides of domestic workers. The Sponsorship system under which migrant workers are employed in Lebanon limits their ability to turn to the courts in Lebanon in search of compensation and justice. In January 2009 the Lebanese government introduced the standard employment contract, which is supposed to guarantee certain rights to domestic workers. While this is a welcomed development, the lack of an enforcement mechanism makes this step insufficient to guarantee the rights of domestic workers.

In Jordan, the Ministry of Labor issued a regulation in September 2009 that included migrant workers under the protection of Jordan's labor laws. However, HRW notes that this regulation still allows employers to prevent domestic workers from leaving the residence, even after working hours.

In the UAE, workers continue to be vulnerable to exploitation and abuse under the Sponsorship system. Migrant workers pay recruitment fees and forced to sign contracts with conditions much worse than the ones promised to them, against UAE laws, which are not enforced. Employers usually confiscate passports of their workers, thus limiting their ability to seek help from UAE authorities against sponsors and recruitment agencies that exploit them.

Egyptian border guards have killed at least 17 migrants since May 2009 who have attempted to cross to Israel. The killing of unarmed migrants that posed no threat to the guards is a clear violation of international law. In Egypt, migrants, asylum seekers and recognized refugees face mistreatment, jail terms and forced refoulement, despite the danger those migrants often face in their countries of origin.

Israel, in forcibly returning those migrants to Egypt, is complicit to Egyptian violations of international law. Israeli policy doesn't allow migrants to present asylum claims or meet representatives of the UNHCR.

Overall, this report paints a bleak picture about the state of migrant workers' rights in the region. The sponsorship system which governs most worker-employer relations in the region is preventing foreign workers from realizing their rights. Several countries have reformed their labor laws this year, but enforcement is still lacking. Let us hope that in 2010 we will be able to report about further and more far-reaching improvements in migrant workers' rights in the region.