Civil society defies a hostile climate to help Gulf migrants

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Today is UN World Humanitarian Day, a day for honoring the contributions of those who face danger and adversity to help others.

Aug 19 2015

Civil society organisations for migrant workers in the Gulf countries are not working in conflict zones or in the wreckage of natural disasters, but in some of the wealthiest countries of the world. Nevertheless, the challenges that they must overcome in order to help migrant workers in need are formidable.

Migrant workers routinely face physical, sexual, financial and psychological abuse in the Gulf states, thanks to a system of employment that is rigged against them from the day that they land in the region. With their permission to remain and work in the country tied to the permission of a sponsor or kafeel, migrant workers are particularly susceptible to exploitation.

Civil society organisations for migrant workers are still fairly few and far between in the Gulf countries.  While there are a number of state-level human rights bodies in the region, running a genuinely non-governmental organisation or lobby groups is no easy matter, as there are stringent rules constraining the formation of charities.

In the UAE, countless attempts by community groups to set up charities, even those as innocuous as Indian cultural associations, have foundered because of heavy bureaucracy, according to this report from Gulf News.

The governments of most GCC countries have a thinly-veiled mistrust of civil society organisations catering to foreigners, perhaps a manifestation of fears about the small indigenous population being overwhelmed or undermined by the high numbers of migrants.

It's important to note that most forms of unionization for workers are either banned outright in the Gulf countries, or heavily monitored.

More palatable for the authorities in countries such as the UAE are drives by groups such as Adopt-a-Camp to distribute food, toiletries and clothing to cash-strapped construction workers, especially around the time of Ramadan. These are kind-hearted initiatives, but are also non-threatening in that they do not call attention to the root causes of the problem (i.e. construction workers being so poorly paid that they cannot afford daily necessities).

Despite this unfriendly climate for civil society groups, a handful of officially recognised organisations persist, and continue to work with migrants in the moments of direst need. keeps a database of civil society organisations at a national, regional and international level. One example is the Bahrain Migrant Workers Protection Society. Now in its 10th year, having gained its license from the Ministry of Social Development in 2005, and works primarily with migrant domestic workers. The organisation’s work includes providing emergency accommodation for abused migrant workers in a shelter, giving legal advice and helping to repatriate workers in distress. BMWPS’s website claims that it is the only organisation of its kind in the region.

There also exist a host of cultural and ethnic-based groups that provide support to workers, such as the Sulong OFW (for Philippine migrants in the UAE) and the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, an Indian organisation with a branch in the UAE.

Transnational organisation Migrante Middle East advocates for the rights of overseas Filipino workers in the GCC, under the leadership of Saudi-based John Leonard Monterona, and has a presence in several other countries in the region.

Migrante mourned the loss of one of its Dubai-based activists, Alex Lapore, just weeks ago, after he collapsed and died suddenly outside the Embassy of the Philippines. The 37 year old was an active member of Migrante and other associations for Filipino migrants, and worked tirelessly to help to the community in Dubai.

While the climate may be hostile to NGOs in much of the Gulf, individuals such as Lapore and groups such as Migrante, still band together to help migrant workers.

This World Humanitarian Day, we remember the work of those in the Gulf who have committed themselves to working for a brighter future for migrants.

If you know of a civil society organisation that works with Gulf migrants but is not listed in our database, then do get in touch. And if you work for such an organisation and would like to spread the word about what you do, then let us know!

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East