In recent weeks, several GCC nations launched intensive raids against undocumented migrant workers as part of reinvigorated nationalization schemes. The distress and uncertainty facing migrants is extremely concerning; GCC nations must adopt all precautions to ensure the dignity and rights of migrant workers are respected. Migrants must have access to attorneys, translators, and to expedient repatriation mechanisms. GCC governments must work in close coordination with sending nations to ensure essential services, including payment resolution and legal provisions, are rendered to migrants. Sending nations should also establish emergency hotlines to disseminate information regarding the rights of undocumented and detained individuals.
Recent reports evidence that migrant workers are subject to indefinite detainment in squalid living conditions, and receive minimal support from state representatives. Officials should avoid detaining undocumented migrants en masse but should ensure humane detention where detention is absolutely necessary. According to Article 22(4) of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW), migrants have the right to contest expulsion under the review of the competent authority. Sending nation embassies must also monitor the treatment of detained citizens and provide free, accessible legal support where possible.
GCC governments must also consider the conditions which preceded undocumented situations. Migrants should be allowed to redress any negative employment conditions which may have prompted them to seek employment with an entity other than their original sponsor. Articles 22(6) and 22(9) of the ICRMW proscribe the interference of deportation in “any wages or entitlements due to a migrants.” Sending-nation embassies and consulates should provide staff and services to aid migrants in reconciling issues with nonpayment prior to eminent deportations.
Moreover, GCC nations should reconsider the use of crackdowns and deportations for normative, economic, and strategic benefits; as an alternative, migrants should be granted an amnesty period that allows them to transfer their sponsorship without excessive fees or penalty. This would enable workers to access protections of existing legislation, while also allowing states to more accurately gauge the number of migrants within its borders1.
Migrant Rights encourages the GCC nations to recognize:
1. that the constraints of the stringent sponsorship system on both employers and migrants fosters undocumented employment situations. From a rights-based perspective, mass deportations contravene basic human rights standards. In particular, collective deportations that fail to review individual cases violate article 26(2) of Arab Charter on Human Rights. Deportations disproportionately criminalize and penalize migrant workers, despite the mutual involvement of employers in such undocumented work schemes. Undocumented migrants are subjected to a protracted state of fear and confusion, unaware if their labor camps or workplaces will be raided, and unaware of the rights they possess in such cases or in case of detention. Gulf governments have not made public or accessible standard procedures of raids or deportations, nor have they stipulated the rights or obligation to the rights of undocumented workers in such cases. Undocumented or irregular migrant workers are entitled to such rights regardless of the particular circumstances, but GCC nations should be particularly assiduous in ensuring migrants’ rights given the sponsorship system’s complicity in engendering such “illegal” work conditions.
States should also dedicate resources to inspecting working and housing conditions at least commensurate with the resources allocated to raids and detentions. Such regulation would proactively curb undocumented work situations by curtailing several of its primary causes. As Migrant Rights encouraged in a previous report, states must address the structural causes undocumented migration in order to effectively address this phenomenon.
2. The economic disadvantages of such intensive crackdowns should prompt the GCC to consider alternative, more efficient mechanisms to curb illegal migration. Rapid, mass deportations unpredictably drains the workforce without substitution. Many undocumented migrants work as laborers, service workers, or other low-wage occupations that nationalization schemes do not or cannot target. In the past, mass raids have had deleterious effects even on sectors of the economy maintained by nationals; for example, in 2010, Oman’s mass deportations severely undermined Muscat’s taxi services, which predominantly served migrant workers that could not afford vehicles. Omani drivers reported massive reductions in earnings, and many faced difficulty obtaining other work to compensate their losses. Deportations of illegal workers consequently had a negative impact on national employment, as the taxi enterprise represented one of few occupations accessible to older nationals who lacked an education or trade.
Contemporarily, Saudi firms have already voiced their distress with the eminent yet simultaneously unpredictable trajectory of the raids and deportations. One manager noted,
“We have huge projects worth billions in construction, and taking this action and deporting illegal workers, I think it's going to reflect on the infrastructure. I'm sure a lot of projects will suffer," said Mr Al Khathlan. "There is already a shortage of labour." [Quoted in The National UAE]
Saudi and wider GCC attempts to “jump-start” nationalization by forcibly removing a large portion of the non-national workforce in the last decade have repeatedly failed; rather than invigorating national employment, deporting undocumented workers (or individuals working for their non-original sponsor) forces firms to operate with a reduced work-force in sectors unattractive to locals. Once raids and inspections subside, undocumented and unsponsored migration resumes as the structural incentives remain intact. Consequently, mass deportations have minimal long-term effect on the scale of either illegal or or non-national workforces while simultaneously incapacitating economic sectors. The inefficiency of such intermittent actions - in part due to the anticipation of such fluctuations by employers and migrants alike - furthermore squanders valuable state resources.
The GCC must recognize that economically advantageous policies can still be pursued through a rights-based approach. Nationalization plans must be implemented with respect for both migrant and employer rights, and in accordance with international norms. In the meantime, sending nations must deploy all necessary resources to facilitate the timely repatriation of stranded migrants, and to ensure the wellbeing of all overseas citizens.
1. Amnesty periods that allow workers to return home without penalty are important, but must be conducted with great care. Amnesty periods must be long enough to allow sending-nations to maneuver the significant resources necessary to repatriate a large number of migrants. Sending nations must also be careful not to impose unnecessary barriers or delays, which may appear in the form of ticket pricing and exit-visa processing. Such obstructions prevented thousands of Indian nationals from obtaining repatriation during the UAE’s 2012-13 amnesty period. Migrants unable to take advantage of amnesty periods were thereafter pursued and indefinitely detained. Even during active amnesty periods, not all migrants are free from penalties; In the UAE, several women were jailed with their children for “adultery, sex outside marriage and having illegitimate children” when they attempted to seek repatriation. Other migrants avoid amnesty repatriations in fear of life-bans from GCC nations.