TRAPPED IN QATAR: A thirteen year sentence for rear-ending a car?

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Sep 20 2014


The writer is the Associate Editor of Migrant-Rights.org and Strategic Adviser to the Shelter Me Project.

One man’s story of being stranded in Qatar for more than a decade, forced to rely on the kindness of individuals to get him out of a country whose system has failed him repeatedly.

Roshan Kumar of Nepal has been in Qatar for 19 years, but to say that he has lived in Qatar would be too wide a statement. The last time he had been home was in 1996 and since 2001, he has been in and out of jails and detention centres, and has headed to the airport half a dozen times only to be stopped at immigration.

He had no money, no job, and because of the prevailing practice of the sponsor confiscating passports, no official documents either. To add to his travails, the company had closed shop, and the sponsor and general manager had both left the country.

"He had no money, no job, and because of the prevailing practice of the sponsor confiscating passports, no official documents either."

For the last 17 months, he has been in Block 7 of the Deportation and Detention center… a place of hope as far as he is concerned, as it’s one step away from taking a flight to his home country, to see his wife and his three children after 17 long years. His youngest son was just a babe in arms when he left home.

His story is an extreme case of the kafala system’s insidious restrictiveness.

The Kafala system that governs foreign workers in GCC states has been under fire for long. Its defendants feel that it is not the system that should be blamed, but those who abuse it. However, the clauses clearly favor the sponsor or kafeel, with little or no protection for the employee, as is evident in the story to follow.

On May 14, Qatar had announced that it would reform the Kafala system. Since then, officials have been giving contradictory statements on when and how far the reforms will go. Roshan Kumar’s story provides every argument for why labor reforms cannot be delayed any longer.

A sign of hope emerged when, during a recent visit to Germany, the young Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani did admit, ”there have been errors and problems, and we don't say we are an ideal state that makes no mistakes. But I think the good news is that we have tackled a lot and have initiated many changes in relation to the situation of foreign workers and we are working seriously on improving this situation".

While those promised improvements are awaited, 51-year-old Roshan Kumar languishes in the detention centre.

Roshan’s story first came to light when Nepali daily Kantipur carried his story. Since then Migrant-Rights.org has reached out to the victim and his family to explore possible recourse. This is his story:

On 29 Aug, 2014 Roshan went to the airport, in the hopes of clearing immigration and boarding the flight to Nepal. The system showed that there was a travel ban placed on him, and that he could not exit the country. Yet again.

It was deja vu many times over. The first time this happened to him was on October 26, 2004. Nearly 10 years ago. Just in the last 17 months, he attempted to exit four times: October 12, 2013; February 10, 2014; July 10, 2014 and again in August.

His problems began on January 26, 2001. After dropping a colleague at the airport in the company pick-up truck, he was returning home late in the night. At the signal near Mamoura complex in Abu Hamour area of Doha, he rear-ended a Landcruiser.

He spent 10 days in jail before being released pending a court case. On April 7, at the hearing he was asked to pay QR2000 or serve six months in jail. With no money to pay the fine, and with no help from the company he had served in since Dec 1997, he spent six months in the jail near the Wholesale Market, and four more days in Rayyan area before being released.

However, the release did not mean freedom. He had no money, no job, and because of the prevailing practice of the sponsor confiscating passports, no official documents either. To add to his travails, the company had closed shop, and the sponsor and general manager had both left the country.

Living off his friends, Roshan pursued the general manager, who had by then moved to Dubai; who in turn encouraged him to file a case against the now defunct company to claim his dues including salaries, bonus and tickets. After six months, he managed to trace his passport and repossess it.

The court case dragged on till December 31, 2003 when the court ordered the company to pay him QR29,000. However, the company managed to wiggle out of the settlement by claiming the dues would take care of damage to company property (the pick up).

Again, Roshan found himself in a familiar and desperate situation. His residency had expired and so had his driving licence.

He was now in Qatar as an undocumented worker (or what the officials prefer to call ‘illegal’ or ‘runaway’).

In 2004, the Qatar government had announced an amnesty to undocumented foreign workers, and Roshan Kumar seized the opportunity to get out of the country. He surrendered to the Search and Follow Up department of the Ministry of Interior (inaccurately referred to as the CID by workers).

On October 26, he went to the airport from the deportation centre where he was held after amnesty.

That’s when he realised there was a travel ban on him. He had no ‘exit’ visa. This time around it was thought to be pending legal, as the court had cleared him after the six months sentence.

Through out this tough period, both at the Ministry and detention centre officials attempted to help him at a personal level, but where unable to formally do anything.

For the next 10 years, undocumented, Roshan Kumar worked as a driver, depending on the kindness of the people. However, he never stopped feeling trapped. There was no way out for him.

He drove around Doha with an expired identity card and driver’s licence, and at desperate moments would violate traffic rules in the hope that he would be picked up and sent back somehow. With no amnesty, there was little else he could do.

A year ago, he committed what according to him was a ‘big mistake’. Under the influence of alcohol, he took the vehicle of his employer and slept on the roadside in Daffna. The Al Fazaa (Rescue Police) apprehended him and took him to the detention centre.

Which is where he has been the last several months, periodically making trips to the airport. At this point neither the officials at the detention centre nor the Nepal Embassy are able to figure out who or why has placed a travel ban on him.

Both Roshan and those in his trust feel the Search and Follow up department are pursuing his case and pushing for a resolution, but seem at a loss.

Roshan holds dear to him two numbers. His expired id number and the traffic department file number. For him, these two hold the power of release. He recalls it from memory, and repeats it as a chant.

Is it as simple as tracing an old traffic department file? If so, why hasn’t it been done?

Migrant-Rights.org spoke to a Nepal Embassy official who said that the embassy has provided him with ‘travel documents’ but were unable to do much else. “The head of the mission is not here now. Maybe when he comes back,” he says.

These are the key issues his story raises:

Socially:

  1. Lack of a legal aid system capable of aiding Roshan before the case escalated.
  2. No public benevolent fund for workers in distress who are stuck in debt due to circumstances beyond their control.

Legally:

  1. The sponsor was in possession of the passport, a violation of rights experienced by the majority of low-income migrant workers in the country. When the sponsor closed shop, he was not held accountable to settle dues or return the documents.
  2. The court case for a meagre settlement of QR29,000 took over two years. The protracted legal settlement illustrates migrants’ heavily obstructed access to justice, as highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur.
  3. The Exit Permit system that controls mobility of all foreign workers in the country. In a case such as this, where it’s quite evident that the offence was minor, Roshan Kumar continues to pay the price 13 years later.

Migrant-Rights.org is awaiting feedback from international rights organizations that are trying to help Roshan Kumar.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East