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Abu Dhabi needs migrant workers, just not in their neighborhoods

On August 24, 2014

A new Abu Dhabi Municipality campaign aims to crackdown on migrants living in shared dwellings. Both the rhetoric of the campaign, its goals, and its legal foundation marginalize migrants from the very communities they build and sustain.

The campaign enforces a pre-existing ordinance, which limits the number of non-family occupants permitted to share accommodation. These regulations prevent migrants from sharing an apartment, purportedly because of safety concerns. The municipality’s professed concern for migrant’s safety does not appear to extend to migrants forced to live in sub-standard labor camps on the city’s periphery - such as those used to house migrants building the Saadiyat islands.  The city does not seem concerned that more migrants will be pushed into these substandard accommodations or that displacing migrants from areas close their workplaces means they will spend more time being shipped back and forth on crowded buses, given even less respite from their often grueling working hours.

While the municipality holds accountable those who rent out 'illegal' accommodation, it provides no solution to migrant’s housing crisis – that is, the shortage of affordable, decent, and convenient accommodation for low-income migrant workers. The campaign does not resolve any such issues migrants endure, but rather endeavors to drive them out of sight.

The primary “safety issue” of actual concern is manufactured by the city; empty “security threats” packaged in unabashed xenophobia are sold to residents, who are asked to take up their civic duty by reporting violations.  The campaign positions bachelors as a direct threat, “thronging residential neighborhoods” and threatening  “a superior life for residents. ”  The city claims these migrants “trigger “social, security, and health problems,” as though their existence  - rather than the circumstances of their living conditions provoked by low-wages – is itself is the cause of these ills.

The language of the campaign (“titled Say No to Bachelors Thronging Residential Neighbourhoods – Together we Ensure Superior Life for Residents”) itself criminalizes migrants merely looking for a convenient, affordable home.  Low-income migrants living alone in the UAE are commonly referred to as bachelors, whether they are actually married or not – if they do not make the minimum salary necessary to sponsor family members, they are still labeled bachelors. This branding implies some sort of latent sexual threat, one that is incongruous – improper – in a “family” neighborhood.

Migrants are regularly criminalized for merely occupying the same space as citizens and more affluent “expats; last year, locals voiced discontent at male migrants socializing near a school, though the men had never caused any actual disturbance let alone committed a crime. The real “security” threat is a perceived encroachment on the racial and economic stratification of Emirati society, that is, the impenetrable divide between locals and migrants

The efforts to erase low-income migrants from residential areas correspond with wider state policies that relentlessly remind migrants that their stay in the UAE is ephemeral; that no matter how many years they live and work in the Emirates, they are only ever temporary workers who’s residency status is always precarious, a single complaint or mistake away from being revoked; that they are social interlopers merely tolerated as a necessity of the labor market.