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Top 5 Migrants' Rights Stories in the Middle East for 2009

On January 2, 2010

After spending another year documenting abuses of migrant workers in the Middle East, it's time that we look back at the most significant, influential and important stories that we've covered.

1. Death of Domestic Migrant Workers in Lebanon
This story is significant not just because of the sheer number of deaths and their alarming frequency, but also because it drew the attention of human rights organizations, international media outlets and governments to the abuse domestic workers suffer in Lebanon. Following the string of suicides in October 2009, Nepal banned its women from working in Lebanon and a court in Lebanon sentenced an employer to a short prison sentence and a fine for abusing her maid. Domestic workers in Lebanon are still not protected under Lebanon's Labor Law and the Sponsorship system makes them almost completely dependent on their employer.

2. Changes in Bahrain's Sponsorship System
While we judge that the proclamations about the "abolishing" or "axing" of the Sponsorship System were premature in Bahrain, the changes instituted in September of this year are a significant step forward. Expatriate workers who were previously chained to one sponsor and depended on him to stay in the country, can now switch sponsors, even if their sponsor objects. This in theory ensures that abused workers, or those who are not properly compensated, can switch to a better sponsor instead of losing their residency. Unfortunately, the new law does not apply to the most vulnerable of migrants - domestic workers.

3. The Dark Side of the UAE's Construction Boom
Like our number one pick, this is also a heavily-covered phenomenon, that has been reported in the press and by human rights organization. The financial crisis has resulted in many migrant workers, especially construction workers, losing their jobs in the UAE. Those workers are often in debt to the agents who provided them with a working visa, and are forced to stay in the UAE and work illegally, trying to cover those debts.
Others who have managed to retain their jobs are living in squalid conditions, and their passports are usually confiscated, in violation of UAE law.

4. UN Report Shows that Migration is Good for Receiving and Sending Countries
The 2009 UNDP report (United Nations Development Program) focused on migration. The report provided fresh statistics about migration practices, remittances, human development, economic growth and more. It showed that migrants from the poorest countries, on average, experienced a 15-fold increase in income, which allowed them to double school enrollment rates and a create a 16-fold reduction in child mortality back home. The report dispelled misconceptions like the harm in a "brain drain" in developing countries, or that most of the migration is to developed countries. The most important conclusion, we think, is that the report unequivocally showed that migrant labor is good for the sending country, but also for the receiving country. The myth of migrant workers coming to "steal" jobs from the locals has been debunked.

5. Wave of Suicide and Suicide Attempts by Maids in Kuwait
This story clearly shows the difference independent media has on covering abuses of migrant rights. While the wave of suicides by maids in Lebanon triggered local and global coverage, government proclamations and reports from Human Rights Watch, the unstoppable trend of suicides by migrant workers in Kuwait has resulted in meager coverage. Other than local papers, which devote short paragraphs to stories of suicides by workers, no one has taken on this cause. During November alone, we documented 13 cases of suicide or suicide attempts in Kuwait. Since that month, suicides have continued. Not a week goes by without a reports about a maid who sets herself on fire, hangs herself, drinks detergent, or workers who mysteriously fall from roofs and balconies.