Detention of Migrant Workers at Kuwait’s Central Prison

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Jan 12 2016

Detention conditions invite scrutiny as crackdowns against migrant workers intensify. Workers awaiting deportation are regularly subject to indefinite detention in substandard facilities. Migrant-rights.org recently covered the plight of Ethiopian workers who plead for rescue from a Kuwait prison.

This past year, Kuwait has deported over 25,000 migrants for violating residency laws, which include leaving their employers (‘running away’) or working for someone other than their sponsors. Deportation is also the automatic penalty for minor infractions, such as driving without a local license, barbecuing in public spaces, harassing women, or offering private lessons outside of an official teaching job.

Kuwait and other GCC countries dole out these disproportionate punishments to reduce migrant populations , especially targeting those who are undocumented or who work in the public sector. These crackdowns and new laws are touted as strategies to increase national participation in the labor force, though observers note that local populations are unable to replace workers in either low-wage hard labor and specialized jobs.

The crackdowns, nevertheless, continue. Kuwaiti police set-up checkpoints and raids on a regular basis in a witch-hunt for those out-of-status. Often, they scout  public buses since they are solely used by low-wage workers. “Smart vehicles” providing instant access to state records that track people’s legal status and whether they were reported “absconding” by their employers.

Arrests often lead to further rights violations once migrants are imprisoned.

More Prisoners Anticipated

Last October, Kuwait’s central prison allowed representatives of local NGOs and journalists to tour their facilities. The complex consists of different prisons, one of which is the deportation prison. The complex reportedly held 3,700 inmates in 2014. Officials from the Ministry of Interior said they are working on expanding the deportation prison, increasing the overall capacity to 5,000 persons.

Migrants are imprisoned throughout the complex, not only in the deportation center; many are serving sentences for felonies they had committed inside the country.

Women and Children

There are about 400 women in the central prison, both citizens and migrants. Some are jailed with their children, who stay with their mothers until evening. For the duration of the night, they stay in a nursery operated by female supervisors.  When pregnant women are jailed, they are exempted from working and offered medical care at the sixth month of their pregnancy. The ministry says they have 700 female employees working in their facilities.

We could not locate any legal information regarding children of prisoners, such as age restrictions or other regulations concerning their detention and  the services offered to them.

The prison complex includes a hospital of 12 clinics, while extreme cases get transferred to al-Farwaniya hospital. Kuwaiti prisons practice strict measures to contain contagious diseases. Inmates with HIV, hepatitis A, or scabies are isolated.

Kuwaiti authorities claim to abide by the Bangkok Treaty for female prisoners. But in 2012, a Kuwaiti professor conducted a study on the conditions and treatment of female prisoners that indicated otherwise; she found that some of those interviewed reported “humiliation, harassment, and physical assault,” leading to depression and suicide either during detention or after their release.  

Imprisoned women lack many basic and crucial services, including laundry services. The cells are small and crowded with eight beds in each. The sheets and mattresses are worn out and not cleaned. All women are made to wear hijab.

Officials claim that all cases of out-of-wedlock pregnancies are immediately referred to deportation, however, some women have been sentenced to jail for “committing adultery.” Migrant-Rights.org recently reported on the case of Fatuma Nambi, a Ugandan domestic worker sentenced to five years in jail for this reason. Nambi has been held at Sulaibiya Central Jail since she delivered a baby at her sponsor’s home in September 2015.

Prison Programs

Authorities say the central prison provides inmates with several programs aimed at building skillsets. For example, there are classes offered for those who want to learn reading and writing in Arabic. There is also a high-school program, which provides inmates with textbooks and supplements to take their diploma tests. The prison library is predominantly stocked with Islamic books, also in Arabic.

Islamic charity associations are allowed to work in prisons, as the state believes religion helps “rehabilitate” inmates.  The work of these groups focuses mostly on ex-addicts and on converting non-Muslims. Former addicts can gain early release for showing “good behavior” and memorizing parts of the Quran. According to source, those who convert to Islam gain certain privileges, such as more visits, phone calls, and prison services.

Officials also say they try to make use of prisoners-exchange programs made between states. But the exchanges exclude those with “state security” or murder cases, as well as those “involving rights of others” material or moral. These exceptions significantly limit the scope of the exchange program.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East