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Kuwait's detained migrants share experiences of abuse, neglect

On July 15, 2014

Year after year, Kuwait's crackdown on migrant workers ascends, resulting in thousands of arrests and deportations. has regularly reported on Kuwait’s arbitrary detention and deportation policies, which authorities attempt to justify by citing public security and local unemployment concerns. Kuwait regularly violates international standards relating to detention and deportation of migrants by conducting mass raids at private residences and checkpoints, and failing to provide detained migrants with access to legal services. While migrants are not permitted the opportunity to contest their status or deportation, they are neither guaranteed expedient repatriation; detained migrants are given no estimation of their departure, as authorities scramble to locate their sponsors to pay their bond or return ticket, or to otherwise finalize papers for their deportation. Hundreds of migrants are consequently deported each day, most having endured systematic transgressions against their rights.

Recently, General Abdelfattah al-Ali was transferred from the traffic directorate to the public security department. Al-Ali is the official responsible for pioneering the deportation of migrants for minor traffic violations. Authorities claim to have terminated this controversial policy after Al-Ali’s transfer. But al-Ali has inaugurated his new post with more promises to get rid of undocumented migrants (again, in order to protect “public security”), launching massive raids in migrant-dense areas including Jleeb al-Shyoukh, Hassawi, and Farwaniya. 

Below, chronicles the experiences of two detained migrants captured during a visit to one of Kuwait’s detention centers.

The first man we spoke to, a 49-year old Egyptian named Ghasan*, told us that this was not his first detention; he arrived in Kuwait five years ago, after having sold his land for an equivalent of 1300 K.D (4600 $) to pay (illegal) recruitment fees to an agency promising to secure a work contract for him in Kuwait. He was told he would receive accommodations and a full-time job paying 150 K.D monthly (530 $).  But as many other migrants have experiences, these assurances fell through after his arrival. His kafeel, a sheikh, confiscated his passport and told him to find a job on his own. He brought him to live with other workers, and forced him to pay 500 K.D (1770 $) every year to have his residency renewed (illegal). By keeping his passport, the sheikh ensured Ghasan could not leave Kuwait without his permission. Ghasan remained unemployed for a year, until he began to resell clothes door-to-door. He survived on self-employed for four years, during which he was arrested several times. Previously, the sheikh would bail him out, but he has not responded to phone calls this time. A police offer told Ghasan: “This time, you will not escape. We will deport you to Egypt.”

Another detained worker, Walid,* came from a small village near Dhaka, Bangladesh. He paid 500 K.D (1770$) to a recruiter who obtained a work contract for him (illegal). When he arrived in Kuwait, he stayed in his sponsor's office for 11 days. The sponsor told him there was no job for him, that he must find a job for himself. He asked other Bengali migrants for help but and was left with no solution. He attempted to commit suicide several times until his friend suggested he take vegetable leftovers from a local market and sell them to migrants at discounted rates. He survived self-employed for 3 years, until arrested in a raid on public transposition.

Though it was difficult to obtain details from both detainees about their arrests and detention time, they freely complained of prison conditions. Ghasan told us he was stopped by police in the streets at a late hour and asked for his ID. Although he had the necessary legal documents, he was still detained and accused of violating residency laws. He says there are about 10 prisoners in the small cell, in which he has been detained for over a week. Prisoners complained of a lack of space, made worse by the sweltering 50 degrees weather. Ghasan also complained he was denied regular phone calls, his family in Egypt still not informed of his arrest. He also is unable to obtain their belongings before being deported.

Walid reported police misconduct during his arrest. He stated the arresting offers were inconsiderate of the number of arrested migrants squished into the single bus transferring them to prison. In his cell, there are eight other men, all denied proper medical care except in emergencies. He complained that phone calls are not allowed to them regularly and his attempts to meet with the embassy have failed.

Previously, Kuwaiti authorities claimed to have discontinued “security campaigns” because of overfilled detention centers. The claims proved untrue, as newspapers continue to report on new arrests. The Ministry of Interior Affairs claims they are worried about the health of arrested migrants, but have failed to take any measures to curb the raids or improve detention conditions. All arrested migrants are denied access to any legal aid, preventing them from obtaining compensation from their unscrupulous sponsors or even gathering their personal possessions. Kuwaiti authorities have repeatedly refused to recognize that arbitrary detention measures not only violate migrants' rights, but are also ineffective in reducing undocumented migration.

Restrictions on employment mobility and related migration policies inherent to the Kafala force migrants to find employment outside of their ‘legal’ jobs. Millions of migrants to the Gulf  - and elsewhere - are pushed into the black market by deceptive recruiters and sponsors.  Often, contracts signed in origin countries are not enforceable in destination countries, and are substituted for contracts with much less advantageous terms once migrants arrive. Migrants are also often charged exorbitant recruitment and placement fees that are actually illegal in both origin and destination countries, and that entrap them in a cycle of debt bondage. Employers and recruitment agencies are rarely held accountable for their actions while migrants are disproportionately criminalized for their undocumented status.

Despite many promises to enforce standard contracts and centralize recruitment processes, Gulf countries fail to monitor and regulate recruitment processes and have made limited efforts to ensure coherence with origin countries in this regulation.

*Names have been changed.