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Kuwait Plans Visa Exit System for Migrant Workers

On December 16, 2015

Following the examples of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Kuwait announced plans to adopt an exit-visa system that would require migrants to gain written permission from their sponsor/employer in order to leave the country. This additional restriction to migrants’ mobility displaces more authority to kafeels and provides them with yet another tool to exploit workers.

Acting Director General of the Manpower Authority Ahmad al-Mousa told al-Rai newspaper that they are now working “on finding a mechanism” to apply the system, which authorities have previously considered, to private sector workers. Al-Mousa referred to examples of “other GCC countries” to justify the initiative but otherwise did not explain the rationale behind the policy.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia cite security concerns to justify the exit visa system, holding that it reduces the likelihood of theft and other crimes. In reality, rights groups have shown that the system only facilitates crimes against migrant workers; employers can blackmail workers in exchange for receiving their documents or exit visas, or simply refuse to issue the exit visa, leaving innocent migrant workers stranded for years. Notably, Qatar recently reconfigured its kafala system as an “entry and exit system,” leaving in tact one its most exploitative components. The UAE and Oman do not have exit visas.

The exit visa system seems to serve the same purpose as passport confiscation, a widely practiced though now illegal means of constraining migrants’ mobility. For many years, Kuwait’s interior ministry encouraged employers to retain their workers’ official documents, fostering suspicion of workers’ mobility as a threat to employers’ “investments.” After much criticism, Kuwait prohibited the confiscation of personal documents on paper, but has yet to hold any errant employers accountable in court. Kuwait recently passed a law that allows employers to “keep” passports of domestic workers if they ‘consent’ – a problematic concept given that domestic workers can scarcely contest their employer’s decision.

In addition to confiscating passports, employers can lodge police reports workers to prevent them from exiting the country. Complaints result in a security hold at the airport and means workers are detained until their employers pick them up.

The new law represents yet another mechanism for police and employers to control workers movement. These restraints on workers physical and employment mobility are violations of basic labor rights and render workers vulnerable to further abuses.