You have reached the main content

Where are our passports?

On January 5, 2016

Many Ugandan migrants are being repatriated from GCC countries without their passports. Their travel and identity documents have been confiscated by their kafeels (sponsors), making their deportations an even more taxing experience.

One returnee, Hajira, said her sponsor refused to return her passport even when it became clear she was being deported. She was upset she now had to endure the Ugandan bureaucracy to get home - not to mention the $50-$100 that she had to spend to acquire a new passport, a fee she can ill-afford.

Hajira had worked in Kuwait for six months; she fell victim to deceptive recruiters who told her she would work in a telecom company, making good use of her degree in Information Technology. But [tweetable] when she arrived in Kuwait, her sponsor confiscated her passport and she was instead forced to work as a maid. [/tweetable]

“From day one I found I was not fit for their work and got stressed all the time,” she told  “I talked to the madam (Arab female sponsor) and all she responded was, you have no choice but to work because we paid a lot of money to bring you in this country, so you just work.”

So she fled her sponsor’s home without her passport and started looking for jobs commensurate to her qualifications. But when a prospective employers discovered that Hajira did not have a passport, he reported her to the police and she was arrested. Her sponsor turned up at the police station, offering to ‘take her back to the house’ to work as a maid. He warned her that she would not get her passport back until she completed two year of work.

By running away, Hajira had instantly became an “illegal” migrant, and the officials could not compel her kafeel to return her passport. Instead, they advised Hajira to contact the Ugandan embassy to obtain travel documents so she could return home without a passport. There is no Ugandan embassy in Kuwait, so she had to request aid from the mission in Saudi Arabia. The Ugandan embassy in Saudi Arabia is responsible for migrants in Bahrain and Qatar as well.

 this year alone the embassy has had to process travel documents for about 200 Ugandans whose sponsors refused to return their passports

Aysha, another domestic worker returnee, said her sponsor demanded she repay her recruitment fees in return for her illegally confiscated passport. Since she could not afford the fees, she was also forced to request travel documents from the Ugandan Embassy in Saudi and returned home without her passport.

According to Bashir Ali Nsubuga, a Ugandan Community Leader in Kuwait, this year alone the embassy has had to process travel documents for about 200 Ugandans whose sponsors refused to return their passports.  Embassies are unable to regain confiscated passports from sponsors and workers are often incarcerated as they await the documents needed for their repatriation.

“Arab sponsors have different reasons to refuse handing back the migrant’s passport; one of the reasons is their belief that the migrant should not return home without completing the two year contract even if the conditions at work are abusive,” he said.

Other reasons include the inability of migrants to pay back the sponsors recruitment fees - including the visa fee and air ticket -  if he or she chooses to terminate the contract early.  

Confiscating passports is illegal in Kuwait, but many employers do so to “protect their investments,” i.e., recruitment costs, which by law must be born by the sponsor. Recruitment costs across the region have soared over the past few years, in part because some sending-countries have stopped sending domestic in protest of low wages and poor working conditions.  Employers often demand migrants back these fees if he or she terminates the contract early, but most workers are already in debt from fees they’ve paid to their own recruiters at home. 

Each GCC country outlaws the confiscation of passports and other identity documents. However, none regularly hold employers accountable for actually retaining these documents and even fail to coerce employers to return them. Despite violating local laws, employers are very rarely penalized - at best, community intermediaries, lawyers, or officials can negotiate with them for the release of documents - and often, the bargaining chip is a workers’ recruitment fees or wages.

This kind of exploitation is rampant across the region, with recent reforms only giving more power to employers: in both Kuwait and Qatar, employers may withhold documents with workers' permission.  Low-income migrant workers scarcely enjoy, or are even aware of, the right to refuse. Even prior to these reforms, research cited by Amnesty International indicated that the majority of workers in Qatar (89-90% of those surveyed) had their passports confiscated by sponsors.