Careless media reporting on Qatar leaves migrant workers more vulnerable

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Let’s start with the disclaimer. This is not an apology for Qatar.

May 29 2015

The writer is an Indian journalist living and working in Qatar for the last 16 years.

The recent Washington Post article and accompanying infographic has gone viral. Like most things on the internet, no one is really concerned about the veracity of content. Hence, the few people pointing out that these statistics are grossly misrepresented go unheard. Nor has Qatar bothered to issue a rebuttal. Because it’s not blame-free.

Here’s why the latest article is unfair. That infographic compared all expatriate deaths since 2011 in Qatar to deaths at previous world cup venues.

Yes, over a 1000 Asian expatriates have died in Qatar since 2011. Many due to poor living and working conditions. As yet, none on actual worksites of the world cup stadiums. This does not absolve Qatar of its responsibility and continuing reluctance to clean up its act.

However, this piece is not about deaths. It’s about the rather cantankerous attack on Qatar.

When Qatar won the bid to host the football world cup in 2022, human rights activists rightly saw it as opportunity to draw attention to the exploitation faced by the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the country. 

The plan then was to highlight the issue, influence Qatar to both accept the problems and find solutions for it, and host the world cup in fair environment. It was a golden chance for the country to rectify its labour environment, to innovate and host the most important important sporting event in the world.

...the failure is not Qatar’s alone. It’s also that of international players–including unions, rights organisations, and most importantly, media.

It has been done before. Right here. In 2001, Doha was to host the WTO and pressure was mounting on it to stop use of children as camel jockeys. Though it placed a temporary ban to begin with, over the following years it made the use of child jockeys illegal and found a solution in robots. Long before other countries in the region even started discussing child jockeys.

That opportunity to bring about a real change now seems too mired by the agendas of various players who all use human/migrant rights as a convenient shield for their personal causes.

It often makes it impossible to make sense of what exactly Qatar is accused of and is supposed to work on. Corruption of FIFA as a whole? Qatar’s role in FIFA’s corruption? The summer heat? Qatar’s foreign policy? Security in the region? Or its discriminatory immigration policies that marginalises migrant workers?

If you want to make sense of this or gain clarity, don’t read newspaper reports in the Western media.Even the most well-reputed don’t effectively distinguish between the various issues, making an Asian lower-income migrant worker the ‘face’ of the sum total of the problems.  Whom exactly that benefits is still a mystery.

All these reports invariably call for cancelling Qatar’s right to host the world cup if it doesn’t overnight turn itself into an idyll in every way imaginable.

When neighbouring countries militantly keep out rights activists, Qatar opened its door for the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to not only come in and research and critique its system, it also showed a willingness to work with them in making substantial changes to its laws and regulations. It was an opportunity to set a different narrative for the region, one not about strife, conflict and insecurity.

That period of optimism, I am afraid, has ceased. No doubt, by responding poorly to initial media reports, oscillating between silence and denial, Qatar exposed all its flaws, without owning any of it. Not to mention its recent detention of journalists.

However, the failure is not Qatar’s alone. It’s also that of international players–including unions, rights organisations, and most importantly, media.

Instead of working with Qatar (and Qatar working with them) in creating geographically and culturally appropriate best-practices, it has turned it into a mud fight. Holding a country accountable is important. But to so totally decimate its hopes and attempts benefits no one.

What it has done is to further dehumanise an already vulnerable population, by portraying them merely as victims and Qatar as the demon with an agenda to do only harm.


Author's note: The original subhead read "Let’s start with the disclaimer. This is not an apology for Qatar. It is to a degree, a defence." It has been edited to keep focus on the essence of the opinion piece and ensure that the discussion moves forward in a productive manner. 


Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East