Another Story of TB and Discrimination

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Nov 4 2011

Recently, we reported Ana's experiences with the Gulf's unfair and overzealous Tuberculosis (TB) deportation policies. Mark, a migrant worker from Manila, shares his own, similar encounters with the GCC's TB laws below:

Mark was first diagnosed with minimal pulmonary TB in September 2008. He stopped working immediately and underwent six months of cumulative treatment in addition to preventative care. Once definitively cured, he resumed search for work overseas.

When an Emrati company selected him for a temporary position, Mark informed the employers of his recent history with TB. The employers provided Mark with written consent to clear him for his departing medical check-ups, assuring him that old TB presented no issues. His visa was approved after lengthy and nerve-wracking processing, allowing him to work in the UAE from 2009 to 2010. After his contract with the company ended, he returned to the Phillipines in search of more overseas work. But after securing a position with another Emirates-based firm, he faced an obstacle he thought he had already overcome:

…this time I did not inform them about my TB history, it never crossed my mind that this is going to be an issue again since I've previously worked in UAE.  But when I  took my pre-departure medical check-up,  the clinic stamped me as "UNFIT".

Mark urged the recruitment agency to advocate on his behalf, knowing that his own protestations wold have no sway with the GCC accredited clinics (GAMCA). In particular, he requested that the agency inform his future employer of the complication, so that the company could intervene and loan their influence. But for three weeks, the agency proved apathetic to Mark's pleas, refusing to confirm any contact with his would-be employer.

Provided with no alternative, Mark continued his search for work. Again, the excessive barriers imposed by antiquated TB policies prevented him from obtaining employment for which he was entirely qualified:

Through a local recruiting agency I received an invitation to attend their client's final interview, but when I informed the agency about my lung scar they immediately rejected my application. That was the end of it.

Mark faced an impossible predicament; he could not find any publicly available information regarding the TB policies, and recruitment agencies were unwilling to help him navigate or even understand the enigmatic practices strangling his livelihood. From his own experiences, the TB policies appeared sporadically enforced, consequently providing him with no indication of who he should contact or what action he could take. The disorienting weight of his situation hit him with full force during his last employment opportunity in April 2011:

I was very determined to inform them about my TB history and convince them that it's possible for me to work in UAE. I was selected again, but during the interview, I [could] not tell them about my lung scar, I was so afraid to lose this opportunity again that the words just wouldn't come out. I really tried, but ultimately, I failed to tell them. And so upon pre-departure medical check-up I was stamped as "UNFIT".

Eventually, Mark obtained a more straight forward understanding of the law when the Abu Dhabi Health Authority released their ‘Visa Screening Standards’ online. With bleak finality, Mark realized that he could no longer work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Qatar - which enforce similar, and perhaps even stricter, TB policies. But with the law's text now confronting him in black and white, Mark’s battle against the extreme practices are reinvigorated:

I've lost something very important to me and I don't have one good [or] sensible reason why. It's hell to live with this, especially at these difficult times…This policy is inhuman, senseless, and even potentially dangerous to these GCC states.

TB is an ancient disease, but it's exactly this kind of attitude by some policy makers that makes it still a problem to this day and age. On a broader outlook, how sure are these policy makers that not one, amongst the millions of migrant workers across the Middle East is hiding this disease because of fear of deportation? There is cure, medicines which are easily available and practically inexpensive, so why is there a need to push another human being into fear and despair?

Mark voices many of the same arguments against the policy that doctors at the 2010 InnovoHealth conference expressed; deportations and lifetime bans instill fear in migrants with potential TB symptoms, reducing their likelihood of reporting the disease. The policy consequently introduces even more risk to transient and local Gulf populations. Even if its benefits did outweigh the serious deficiencies, such extreme solutions are unnecessary; Mark points out the United States' approach to TB, which provides its population with more reliable health protections without imposing unnecessary stress on migrants. For example, foreigners with TB may apply for a waiver to enter the country legally, and can also re-apply for a visa once cured. TB control programs specifically list "...safeguard[ing] the confidentiality and civil liberties of persons who have TB, and...protect[ing] them from unlawful discrimination because of their disease," among their primary objectives. The UK's TB policy is similarly tolerant.

Like Ana and other migrants facing TB discrimination, Mark aims to lobby organizations such as the WHO to pressure GCC states into modifying their laws. With the success of alternative, less stringent measures in the US and the UK - who also host large migrant populations - there is hope that Gulf countries can be swayed to implement more efficient policies that improve preventative TB measures while preserving the liberties and livelihoods of their migrant populations.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East