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Mideast Despots: Begetting, enduring, and committing violence against migrants

On February 18, 2012

This past year, we've witnessed radical change in the Middle East. As the power of the People fills the streets, a demand to reclaim basic human rights rings throughout the the region. But as change continues to take MENA by storm, no group of people can remain isolated from the pursuit of liberty.

Migrants in the Middle East, from domestic workers, to construction workers, to factory workers and others, are invisible actors in many countries. Migrant mistreatment is a widely documented, sustained phenomena; from middle class employers who abuse their maids, to factory owners who underpay their employees, both physical and psychological abuse are apparent in virtually every sector of society. Illiberal Middle Eastern regimes crown the hierarchy of oppression, perpetuating human rights violations by engendering discriminatory policies and enabling oppression. The organ of society with the most widespread influence - the authority empowered with the responsibility to protect all beings under its jurisdiction - not only fails to prevent the mistreatment of foreign workers, but furthermore participates unabashedly in their disenfranchisement and dehumanization.

Earlier this year, two Filipino migrants in Bahrain lodged compensation complaints for 13 months of work they labored without pay. Their employer was not a faceless citizen in a cloistered neighborhood nor an unmonitored factory supervisor, but a Bahraini royal.

In 2009, a video smuggled out of the UAE exposed an Afghan's trader torment at the hands of two spineless men, a brute and his lackey who attempted to conceal their heinous crimes in a remote desert. They whipped the trader repeatedly, penetrated him with nails, impaled him with an electric cattle prod, ran him over with a car, and concluded their torturous affair by literally rubbing salt into his gaping wounds. The primary sadist in this story is Prince Sheikh Issa Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, brother of the Emirate’s president and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince.

Kuwaiti officials seem to be in competition with their Gulf counterparts. In one case, a policeman offered his services to three Kuwaiti sponsors beating an Asian migrant to death. In another, two Ministry of Defense employees kidnapped, raped, and tortured an Indonesian woman. She escaped using the only means available to her, the same route many abused migrants are forced to descend: she jumped to her death. The men were questioned by authorities, but their ultimate punishment remains unknown, disappearing into obscurity like so many of Kuwait’s migrant abuse cases. Similar ‘instances’ of abuse originating from government officials - which together, overtime form a recognizable pattern of misconduct - were documented in 2009 and 2010.

In Israel, the country that clings to its 'democratic' misnomer to hide the occupation of Palestine, domestic workers employed by the wife of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu revealed their accounts of Sara Netanyahu's degrading psychological abuse. One domestic worker recalled how Netanyahu forced her to change and shower several times a day, and to incessantly remark upon the woman's beauty and intelligence. In addition to suffering physiological and psychological assaults, she was paid below minimum wage. Another former maid sued the Netanyahus for failing to pay her legally-mandated severance pay, social benefits, and overtime compensation. In light of Israel’s newly ordained law permitting the indefinite detainment of migrants for small infractions, the Netanyahus degrading treatment of their own domestic staff is unsurprising.

In Libya, the Gaddafi family's atrocious crimes against humanity proved indiscriminate; Shwygar Mullah was the nanny in Hannibal Gaddafi’s household. Mullah revealed to CNN the savage torture administered by Hannibal's wife, Aline Skaf. Skaf poured boiling water over her body on two occasions, the most recent after she refused to hit their son. She then forced Mullah to sleep outside without food or water for two days. Mullah endured a year of constant physical abuse without pay. Another victim carrying scars that mirror Mullah's was interviewed in Sudan, having escaped to his home country after Hannibal's security forces were destroyed. The man also fell victim to Skaf's favored choice of torture when he mistakingly damaged pieces from her laundry. In addition to a boiling water bath and forced sleep deprivation, the backs of his hands were ironed by Skaf's guards. It is critical to note that perhaps the most widely known, detailed case of abusive authority involves a dethroned figure who can no longer control the narrative.

Considering those in government positions have the privilege of privacy and influence, few cases of abuse have managed to escape into the media’s attention and reach the public eye. Abuse involving heads of state or government agencies only receives press coverage by chance, or by the ardent commitment of individuals opposed to the status quo. And in the rare cases government abuse manages to pass through media censors, the general public’s reaction is often apathetic at best. Despite constructing their buildings, raising their children, and working their industries, migrants remain nameless victims, members of an "other" group unworthy of public attention.

However, the limited reach of migrant advocates is largely the product of the region’s political reality. How can foreign governments, organizations, and activists effect positive change in countries whose leaders have personally spurned the concept of ‘migrant rights,’ at best demonstrating an economically-informed indifference to their plight? The repeated, belabored attempts by migrant-exporting nations, INGOS, and NGOS to enact equitable migrant legislation entails a process so slow it appears almost nonexistent. International and binational treaties designed to protect migrant workers often fade into much less tangible and rarely effective comprises. Foreign government agencies may procure a positive outcome in particular instances, but their success is often limited to case-by-case negotiations. They can rarely achieve the kind of broad-scale legislation necessary to protect migrants from day-to-day exploitation because such developments require the affirmation of universal equality, opportunity, and dignity that these regimes deny their own citizens.

What supernatural powers must be summoned to influence those who legislate and enforce, who refuse to abide by the paltry morals they feign to uphold, and who refuse to justly punish infractions against the most basic principles of human rights? How can the political masters be persuaded to spend resources to encourage the public to treat migrant workers with basic respect, to enforce laws accompanied by substantive penalties to ensure the fair treatment of foreign workers, when they so brazenly refuse to acknowledge migrant workers’ humanity themselves? When literal kings, sultans, and the "democratic representatives" (in name only) view political change as a bargaining chip of last resort, rather than as a means of social and economic progress?

The actions of those who create and hold hostage the rule of law do not exonerate individual citizens from their attitudes and crimes. Rather, they contextualize the environment of discrimination and dehumanization that perpetuates such indifference to all levels of violence - from daily disparagements to more vivid crimes against humanity. In nations denied authentic civil societies and social expression, attempts to provoke grassroots change or to even deviate from established norms are perceived as a threat to the carefully constructed ruling regimes; those who sit at the top are not interested in the rights of their own citizens, let alone the rights of migrant workers.

This unfortunate reality does not disempower organizations such as the Anti-Racism Movement, Migrant Care, or Lebanon’s Migrant Workers Task Force, which are civilian-powered groups that do make real, substantive changes in both the social perception of migrant workers and in their quality of life. However, citizens working to influence social change are not competing with other citizens, but with the powers of the state; with violence that has been woven into the law of the land, and with a status quo that has the money, power, and defense apparatus to preserve it.

These are the struggles facing activists, NGOs, and migrant-exporting governments as they attempt to effect change in migrant policies. The emergence of any semblance of social equality or economic justice requires the overhaul of entire political systems in order to rework legal authority, and to redefine the conceptions of humanity so that all exclusions from that humanity are removed. The Arab Spring represents perhaps the most important catalyst to improving the status of migrants because it seeks to abolish these barriers against liberal-driven change.

Protesters in the Arab Spring have focused primarily on their own respective freedoms at this still-early stage of regional revolution, but the opening of the political system itself represents an extraordinarily significant opportunity. A polity that embraces all of its citizens into democracy allows for legitimate dialogue; as citizens become invested in the operations of their state, as they become the creators rather than the victims of their own legal system, the realization of their own humanity will inevitably be succeeded by the recognition of others, and in the consequent promulgation of universal rather than exclusionary rights.

Such drastic revolutions in world-view are unlikely to transpire quickly or easily. Some citizens continue to see migrant rights as a secondary cause to be dealt with as an after-affect of the imminent political changes. But as the power of authoritarians dwindles and the People become empowered to condemn their oppressors, the oppressors within each of us must also be exposed. We must seize this grand opportunity to recreate our conception of humanity and to demand a government that recognizes all persons as equal. Migrant workers represent one of the most marginalized communities in the Middle East and we must support their freedoms even more strongly than we do our own. Their fate is the litmus test for our own humanity. The crimes of a crown Prince against his own people are as ghastly as his crimes against the nation’s foreign population; the inveterate rape, torture, and exploitation of migrants are not merely side notes to the long list of MENA government corruption. They, too, are intrusions against the dignity of Middle Easterners. They, too, should fuel the anger and revulsion that charges throughout the region.