Kuwait scapegoats, criminalizes Ethiopian domestic workers

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Jun 26 2014

Kuwait's low-income migrants endure daily discrimination but local media and authorities tend to particularly criminalize Ethiopian domestic workers. The March 2014 murder of a Kuwaiti woman by an Ethiopian domestic worker most recently inflamed rhetoric against Ethiopian migrants and incited national panic against domestic workers; state officials and local media fueled racist hysteria in the aftermath of the murder, a response typical to any kind of crime committed by Ethiopians and domestic workers. The same race-based 'explanations,' of violence are recycled following every incident, conveniently shifting accountability away from recruitment practices or employment conditions. Instead, fictitious cultural practices or inherent characteristics and behaviors are cited to justify expanding control over workers and minimizing their rights.

A number of fear-mongering tropes prevalent in Kuwaiti media and elite narratives, particularly following crimes committed by Ethiopian domestic workers, include:

"Sorcerers for Virgin Women!"

Shortly after the murder of his daughter, Kuwaiti official Humood Flatih spoke to a conference organized by the al-Awqaf ministry entitled "The National Project to Spread Awareness among Newly-Arrived Domestic Workers." Flatih mentioned that his daughter was kind to the worker and "had bought her a phone card the day before the incident to help her call her family." He claimed she was killed because the domestic worker held "abnormal religious beliefs that demand her to sacrifice a virgin woman on a certain day." He requested the government mandate psychological evaluations for domestic workers prior to recruitment.

Though it’s impossible to speculate about the specific circumstances of this case, it’s necessary to highlight the strong influence of working conditions on the behavior or actions of domestic workers. Kuwaitis often express concern about the mental wellbeing of workers prior to recruitment, refusing to acknowledge the psychological harm that occurs because of distance from family members, constrained communication with family, general isolation in the employers’ house, as well as actual psychological or physical abuse. Displacing accountability for the treatment of domestic workers is detrimental to both workers and employers.

In a panel organized by al-Anba'a newspaper, Major General Mustafa Juma'a called on Kuwaiti households to respect their housemaids by paying them on time and treating them well. He also suggested mandatory pre-employment training programs. But Juma'a then advised Kuwaiti families to install cameras in their houses to monitor the behaviour of domestic workers at home, unnecessarily stoking employers' anxieties and inviting invasions of  workers’ right to privacy. He furthermore argued that deportation procedures need to be rushed to penalize workers and serve as a warning

Juma'a and other panel participants exemplify the elite voices who fuel the ongoing national-panic against domestic workers.

"Criminals in the Home"

In a typical attempt to externalize societal ills, Kuwait university professor and head of the Family Center for Counseling Amthal al-Huwaila claimed crimes in Kuwait are "as old as the migrant population." Al-Huwaila blamed all crimes on a "cultural crisis happening inside the family" after the arrival of a foreign worker to the household. Al-Huwaila furthermore argued the cause of domestic workers' crimes can be "genetic, temporary, or caused by the surrounding environment," in addition to "feelings of hate and envy" towards Kuwaitis' wealth and comfort. The professor of psychology suggested the creation of shared database between GCC countries to help fight migrant crimes, "as some leave a country, change their passports, and head to another GCC country." Al-Huwaila warned Kuwaiti mothers as she had witnessed "cases of Kuwaiti kids mumbling words in a foreign language and it turned out the kid was imitating their Filipina housemaid. There are also cases of Kuwaiti men who refuse marrying other than Filipina women because they were raised by Filipina housemaids."

Al-Huwaila’s claims reflect the tendency to blame migrant workers for their mere existence, for filling demands in Kuwait's economy. Authorities also scapegoat migrants to absolve themselves of accountability for crime and employment rates, maneuvering this propaganda to justify mass detentions and deportations.

"Ban and Deport the Psychopaths!"

At the same panel, parliament member Mohammed Tana blamed domestic worker crimes on recruitment agencies that "are run by Asian expats." Tana demanded that Kuwaitis take over these agencies because the position requires "a patriotic sense of responsibility." Popular narratives hold that absconded workers conspire with agencies to fleece employers of their investments. These accusations fail to acknowledge that agencies are more likely to swindle migrant workers, who have fewer legal protections and much less access to redress than Kuwaiti employers.

The politician also demanded that migrant workers take mental and physical tests on a regular basis; he cited the case of 400 Ethiopians in Kuwait's Psychological Medicine Hospital whom "the state takes care of until their sponsors deport them or sell them to other sponsors." It’s important to recognize the popularity of regularly psychological evaluations for workers, whilst the notion of regular monitoring of workers conditions, even through meetings with embassy representatives, is widely ridiculed.

Tana added "[he] heard that some Ethiopian tribes kill virgin women as a sacrifice, so we need to ban Ethiopians to completely solve this problem."

"Hang them all!"

Lawyer and feminist activist Kawthar al-Joa'an claimed these workers "come from poor and far villages, from ignorant societies, to an opened-up society." She also blamed Kuwaiti embassies for failing to report on the ‘kind’ of workers brought to Kuwait. Similarly, young Kuwaiti columnist  Abdulaziz al-Essa held in his article "Killers in our Homes" that domestic workers are mostly well-treated by Kuwaiti families and that workers who committed murders "would be hung in Naif Square, instead of leaving them eating in Kuwaiti jails."

A TV interview widely circulated in Kuwait featured an Ethiopian-Kuwaiti woman who spoke against Ethiopian domestic workers. The naturalized woman called "Um Muhammad" is married to a Kuwaiti man. She warned Kuwaitis from recruiting Ethiopians domestic workers because they are not obedient and practice witchcraft. Seeming to have internalized myths of Arab superiority, Um Muhammad claimed Ethiopian domestic workers are tempered and that she herself learned from Kuwaitis how to control her temper.

These narratives also reflect the state's wider approach to migrant workers, which regularly fails to individually adjudicate migrant cases, instead arbitrarily detaining or summarily deporting migrants en-masse; In March, Kuwait banned the recruitment of all Ethiopian workers and deported more than 13,000 domestic workers within few days. Several politicians also called for a boycott of Ethiopian domestic workers, and many workers were consequently 'returned' to recruitment agencies; an unnamed official from Kuwait's Interior ministry stated  "the popular campaign against these housemaids aims to get the ministry to get rid of these workers by deporting them and not renewing their residencies."

Counter-Narratives

Although positive voices are often marginalized, there are a number of Kuwaitis working to counter racist narratives on migrants and crimes. Hassan al-Mousawi of al-Jarida newspaper challenged the logic of those demanding severe, blanket punishments. In a recent article, he wrote "there are many families who mistreat and torture their housemaids but no one demanded a collective punishment against citizens."

Echoing these criticisms, columnist Ahmad al-Sarraf urged Kuwait should not follow in the steps of authoritarian regimes who posit collective punishments as legitimate solutions. He also demanded that all responsibilities pertaining to domestic workers be transferred from the ministry of interior affairs to the ministry of labor.

Head of Kuwait Psychological Medicine Hospital Adel al-Zayid also disputed allegations that depict Ethiopian domestic workers as psychologically-troubled; he held that the number of Ethiopian domestic workers serviced at the hospital is proportionate with other nationalities and added "there is no connection between crimes happening and psychological disorders. In fact, nothing proves that those who committed crimes have had psychological problems."

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East