Kuwait’s Police Stations “Crammed” with Deportees

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Jun 3 2014

Following the escalation of crackdowns on undocumented migrants in early 2013, Kuwait's Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoI) continues to detain and deport migrants in significant numbers. On May 30 2014, al-Qabas newspaper reported that the ministry issued a "verbal decision" to halt raids because police station prisons and deportation centers are "crammed with residence violators."  Additionally, the MoI demanded that all police stations submit a list of detained migrants alongside reasons for their arrests for the undersecretary’s review. The report indicates the decision came partly in response to local and international criticism against the severe treatment of low-income migrants in the country.

Yet, the decision to temporarily halt crackdowns was not likely made out of a concern that migrants’ rights have been systematically violated.  Rather, the decision seems largely founded in concern that overcrowded cells might spread diseases, thereby perpetuating the dangerous myth that migrants are inherently a public health risk.  This narrative has justified the deportation of migrants with diseases or ailments, whether or not they are communicable or curable. Last year, Kuwait deported at least 800 migrants who suffer Tuberculosis. This myth also justifies the discriminatory visa practices that prevent healthy migrants from entering the GCC states.

Furthermore, while the ministry has finally begun to address issues of arbitrary detention and other disproportionate penalties levied against migrant workers, it continues to ignore the need for actual, substantial legal reform to deportation regulations and procedures. Currently, "hundreds" of migrants are in detention, each staying in police station cells for "a week or more." The MoI blames sponsors and embassies for delaying the deportation process; sponsors avoid returning calls from detained migrants or police in order to avoid paying for their travel expenses, in which case the ministry much covers the costs. Embassies in turn are slow to issue documents needed to complete deportations.  But Kuwait cannot absolve itself from accountability; its extreme practices, including the virtually free reign given to authorities to detain any migrant, produced the current crisis.

For example, many detained migrants cannot be deported due to unpaid debts that legally prevent them from leaving the country. Thus, they remain in limbo, indefinitely detained in overcrowded jails without the means to repay debts. Some sponsors also complain that migrants are detained despite committing no violations. In April 2014, 100 Asian workers were "arrested randomly" from streets and transportation buses and detained at the al-Salhiya police station.  According to security sources, those arrested did not commit major offenses and their sponsors were not given sufficient answers for the cause of their detention.

Additionally, the MoI has heightened penalties against migrants involved in any sort of illegal activity, even issuing deportations for traffic violations.  Arrests last month alone include the following: between May 18 and May 24, 77 migrants were arrested for traffic violations;  on May 26th, 20 Arab and Asian workers were arrested in shops and cooperative societies for "violating residence and labor laws;” between May 11 and May 17, police arrested several migrants for residence violations and other infractions Hawalli; in al-Ahmadi, police arrested 10 migrants wanted for violations and 21 others for "their involvement in civil, criminal and judicial cases.” Four Asian migrants were also arrested for the possession of locally made alcohol, another for drug possession of “shabew,” and three others "for loitering.”  21 Syrians are also to be deported for participating in a fight at the al-Sabah hospital, despite a previous decision to stop deportations to Syria because of the country's ongoing war.

Additionally, in March of this year, the MoI also impetuously deported nearly 13,000 domestic workers (and imposed a moratorium on their recruitment) just days after mass, racist hysteria against Ethiopian domestic workers erupted across the country.

Authorities have employed various unscrupulous means in these crackdowns, including raids, checkpoints, and the GCC’s version of a stop-and-frisk (i.e. stopping any migrants for any reason and requesting their paperwork). Kuwait recently announced an extension of this “security” campaign: surveillance cameras will be used "in public places and malls, roads and vital areas throughout the country and at exits and entrances to residential areas," following an example set by the Emirates. The extensive measures adopted to address undocumented migration demonstrate the predominance of security workers in shaping migration policy – a framework that is used to justify violations of migrants’ rights, as low-income migrants continue to be demonized by officials and much of the media, who unfairly posit migrants as the source of society’s most critical problems. Consequently, the illegitimacy, violence, and other form of misconduct that systematically accompany migrant arrests are overlooked by authorities.

Though Kuwait justifies infractions against migrants’ rights by claiming undocumented migrants pose a security threat, authorities fail to adequately address the root causes of undocumented migration; these causes include unscrupulous and unregulated recruitment agencies, as well as stringent restrictions on employment mobility under the sponsorship system. Deportations, as well as restrictions on migration, disproportionately penalize migrant workers and bleed the economy of critical players.  For these reasons, mass deportations have historically failed to reduce undocumented migration in the long run, rendering these strategies not only unjust, but futile as well.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East