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Kuwait Bans Ethiopian Migrants and Deports Nearly 13,000 Domestic Workers

On March 23, 2014

Kuwait’s Ethiopian community has become the target of bigoted accusations and vitriolic attacks following the March 16 murder of a 19-year-old Kuwaiti woman by an Ethiopian domestic worker.  The young housemaid murdered her employer’s daughter, child of ex-football player and current Kuwaiti official Humood Flatih al-Shammari, and proceeded to turn herself in at the local police station. One media report claims the murder was a reaction to "mild criticism from the victim regarding the housemaid's housework."  According to authorities, she may face the death penalty.

Less than a week after the murder,  Kuwaiti officials, citizens, and media outlets have proposed recruitment bans and even deportations of Ethiopian migrants. The ministry of interior announced an indefinite moratorium on the recruitment of all Ethiopian migrants and yet again, Kuwaiti officials failed to responsibly and reasonably address crimes involving the expatriate community . Parliament members were amongst the first to stoke fear and anger by implicating the Ethiopian community as a whole; parliament members called for a unilateral ban on Ethiopians migrant workers and for the deportation of the estimated 80,000 currently residing in Kuwait.  One parliament member directly called on Kuwaiti families to proactively deport their Ethiopian housemaids, 45,000 of whom work across the country, and to swallow resulting financial losses as though it were a national duty.  MP Talal Al-Jalala  reiterated calls for regular testing of domestic workers to "ensure they are not suffering from psychological diseases” and demanded a tougher punishment for so-called "killer maids." MP  Humood al-Hamdan  also suggested measures to avoid recruiting workers with "mental or psychological problems” as well as  awareness campaigns to "familiarize the expatriate workers on the local culture and nature of the Kuwaiti society…” Each of these members claims that workers are predisposed towards crime because of mental instability or cultural differences, failing to acknowledge the documented impact of exploitative employment conditions on workers. Gulf-based studies link both workers’ crimes and mental disposition to employer mistreatment, providing an evidence-based opportunity for intervention. But rather than securing much needs rights for domestic workers or launching public service announcements to encourage the fair treatment of domestic workers Kuwaiti officials choose to recklessly incite hostility against the migrant community and further perpetuate the cycle of violence.

Furthermore, on March 19 the Ministry of interior launched raids on recruitment agencies. The ministry arrested 12,984 domestic workers in one night and intends to deport them shortly – without granting them access to legal services or to a trial to contest their status.  One media outlet reported that the ministry intended to shut down violating offices, and also confiscated agencies’ insurance funds. The ministry ordered the deportation of all domestic workers temporarily placed at these offices, most of whom had been ‘returned’ to the agency and were awaiting the location of another employer. Among the 12,000+ domestic workers arrested, 2,136 were Ethiopians; 234 females and 1,902 males.

The ministry condemned agencies attempts to exchange maids or ‘sell’ them to different sponsors as a form of human trafficking, and according to a local newspaper, “the ban is enforced until recruitment procedures as well as regulations that organize the work of recruitment offices and medical tests in Kuwait are reviewed.” Yet, the Kuwaiti government established this ‘probationary period’ to protect sponsors investments, allowing them to ‘return’ domestic workers to recruitment agencies if they are unsatisfied with their work. While it is critical that Kuwait seems to have recognized the risk this period exposes domestic workers to, Kuwait’s response is misguided; By choosing to summarily deport these workers, Kuwait has once again disproportionately imposed the burden of it’s own under-regulation, as well as the transgressions of Kuwaiti citizens, onto migrants.

The demonization of nationalities following major crimes committed by expatriates is not unique to Kuwait; Last year, the murder of a child by a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia immediately invoked widespread outcry against Ethiopians and resulted in a ban on their recruitment. Saudi officials similarly failed to address the actual causes such crimes and instead implemented measures based largely on social media hysteria. By addressing the race of a domestic worker rather than the conditions of domestic work, Saudi accomplished little except invite maid shortages and higher recruitment fees.

The UAE has been more vocal about the impact of employment conditions on domestic workers and has produced several awareness campaigns about fair treatment. However, these campaigns similarly cast suspicion on domestic workers, implying that workers should be treated well not for the sake of their rights, but for the sake of the family’s safety.  These warnings can put workers at further risk, as employers feel they must consolidate their control.  Additionally, the campaigns have not been coupled with legislative reforms that protect domestic worker’s rights.

Kuwait should learn from the experiences of other Gulf states as well as it’s own.  Without any trial, Kuwaiti officials have already determined the motivation of the crime and have already acted with abrasive, uncalculated measures. Rarely do Kuwaiti officials speak out about attacks against migrant workers, and never with such expedient demands for official action. Murder of course can never be justified, and should always be condemned – but in Kuwait, this outcry is dependent on the citizenship of the victim and the nationality of the murder.

Collective punishment fails to meaningfully address the root cause of such crimes and furthermore directs public anger towards Ethiopian domestic workers.  Rather than inflaming suspicions against foreign domestic workers, Kuwait should implement a balanced reform of the entire domestic worker sector that ensures the safety of employers and workers alike.

Kuwaiti officials have chosen to incite suspicion against foreign domestic workers rather than to develop sound protective measures that ensure the safety of employers and workers alike.