Earlier this month, a group of Ethiopian women sent out a distress call from a Kuwaiti prison. A cell-phone video circulated on Facebook and Ethiopian websites showed over 10 women in a single cell, several of them laying on the floor. A tearful voice explains their pitiful conditions in Amharic, claiming they were been beaten and abused. Compatriots brought the viral recording to the attention of the Ethiopian embassy in Kuwait and demanded intervention. The women may have been imprisoned for up to a week before the video leaked (the YouTube title mistakingly places the women in Yemen, but they are confirmed to be in Kuwait).
After speaking with local authorities, the embassy discovered the women were detained at the al-Nai'm prison in al-Jahra. Most of them were ‘absconding’ workers who had left their employers following non-payment, abuse, or other exploitation. They escaped their sponsors in the hope of finding work as part-timers in the black market but were arrested by police at checkpoints and in raids; Kuwait, like other GCC states, maintains a high police presence in migrant-dominated areas and on public transportation frequented by low-wage migrant workers.
According to the embassy, the workers are still awaiting deportation because of unpaid visa fines, debts, or ongoing disputes with sponsors. A group of local Kuwaiti activists and lawyers worked anonymously to pay some of these fines in order to shorten their period of detention. The group said that deportations are usually finalized within two weeks, but that there is no specified length of time.
As part of its escalating “Kuwaitization” strategy, Kuwait has cracked down on undocumented migrant workers in recent years; authorities deported over 25,000 migrant workers through the Talha deportation prison last year alone. Most deportees belonged to ten nationalities, with Bangladeshis, Ethiopians, Sri Lankans and Indians topping the list.
Authorities claim they try to expedite deportations to avoid overcrowding, as Talha prison can only accommodate 800 persons. Kuwait’s Ministry of Interior no longer depends exclusively on Kuwait Airways to secure departure tickets for deportees, but still often waits for sponsors or embassies to process documents and arrange travel documents. One Egyptian man narrated his experience to al-Qabas newspaper earlier this year; the young man spent 11 months in jail awaiting deportation and was tortured after he went on a hunger strike to protest mistreatment. Other prisoners had been stranded for up to 3 years, all awaiting deportation.
The consequences of unjust detention and deportation practices is often tragic; this summer, an Indian man had committed suicide while in prison. He used a plastic rope to hang himself in the prison bathroom and his body was discovered four hours after his death. Many low-income migrants attempt suicide in detention.
A Kuwaiti blog that tracks deportations sheds further light on detention conditions and unfair deportation procedures. The following account from a teacher, deported for driving with an international license, demonstrates the vulnerability most foreign workers face:
I was stopped by the police and immediately they started shouting at me, and swearing at me, I showed them my license and they said no that is not enough. My daughter was with me who was crying, I called my friend to collect her, they took me to the police station, booked me in and then to the prison in Talha. I was treated like a piece of shit by the police, I told them I want to speak to my embassy who visited me and said if I stay and wait for a decision I will be here for a long time, so it is better to leave. I told my family to pack up there things and take the same flight as me.
Whilst in prison I was not allowed to use the bathroom, we slept in filthy conditions and ate on the floor like animals, all for not having a Kuwaiti license – which incidentally the standards are much lower compared to British driving standards.
I now have to start my life again, no job, no money, no house of my own, no school for my kids, I will get back on my feet, I accept i have broken the law, but is this sentence not too harsh for such an offense.
"Kuwaitization" strategies unnecessarily rely on discriminatory laws that instantly invalidate workers' residency status and harsh crackdowns; the effort to deport an arbitrary number of migrant workers each year contributes to prison overcrowding and overwhelms both local and embassy bureaucracies, obstructing migrants' access to information about their detention - let alone access to justice.
Detentions and deportations thus remain overwhelmingly unfair - most migrants do not receive a trial any opportunity for defense. Detentions are still indefinite, dependent upon an apathetic bureaucracy and the kind interventions of a few locals. And as this video evidences, conditions are less than humane. The absence of adequate representation is particularly striking in the fact that workers needed to record this video for the Ethiopian embassy to even become aware of their detention.