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The limits of advocacy

On September 13, 2020

Six months into the Covid-19 crisis, and no one can feign surprise at the appalling photographs that have exposed Saudi Arabia’s latest mistreatment of Ethiopian migrants. The deplorable conditions, the abuse, the indefinite detention and soon the third or fourth wave of mass deportations with no ounce of justice served.  All too predictable. The pandemic brings a heightened sensitivity to the viscerally unsanitary detention centres steaming with the body heat of hundreds of men and women crammed into dingy buildings, simmering for months under the desert sun. An investigation of no material consequence will be lodged, responsibility ricocheting between different authorities until the only detail that endures is that the workers entered “illegally”. The actual crimes of the systems, institutions, and individuals are all forgotten. The pandemic will pass. More workers will come, through some permutation of the migratory channels deceptively dichotomised as regular and irregular. More will be detained, demeaned, deported. All too predictable.

And yet despite this predictability, six months into the Covid-19 crisis the discourse on Gulf migration remains largely just that – a discourse. The flurry of webinars and online discussions that sprang up in the first few weeks of the global lockdown provided a much-needed space for piecing together the immediate and long term impact of the pandemic, and for planning the necessary responses. Consensus seemed to be reached quickly: that the pandemic compounded pre-existing vulnerabilities for the millions of migrant workers in the region. That inevitable mass returns would need to be planned carefully by both countries of origin and destination to purportedly safeguard the rights, health, and well-being of migrants.

Less immediate has been the actioning of these recommendations, as we watch in real-time the progressive worsening of the situation of migrant workers. While Saudi Arabia consistently delivers the cruellest optics, the trauma endured by migrant workers echoes throughout the region. Images from the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar blur into one another, with migrant workers herded into filthy makeshift centres, abandoned without food, denied months of past-due wages, left homeless and unable to access medical care or afford tickets home. Anecdotes some will argue. As if these ‘isolated incidents’ are not repeated thousands of times over, every day. 

The reality is that while we now struggle to unmute ourselves several times a day, the people who should be listening are not hearing us anyway.

Often, in well-intended efforts to avoid the victimisation of migrant workers and to celebrate their agency, we repeat an uncritical narrative of resilience. Migrant workers are resilient, yes. Those with nothing to spare are often those most committed to supporting their compatriots and communities. But while their heroic efforts deserve acclaim, they should not have to be so brave. They should not – 20 to 30 years into the status quo and in the middle of a global pandemic – be forced to rely on one another for everything from emergency shelter to legal advice. Their resourcefulness is not the pandemic’s silver linings; they are the heart of of the Kafala system laid bare, the states’ flagrant indifference to its marginalised majority.

Relief efforts from within and outside the region – including our own – have endeavoured piecemeal responses to the humanitarian catastrophe. Stakeholders agree that long-term reforms are needed to avoid these disasters in the future. Yet, the responsible parties continue to deflect responsibility to the civil societies they have suffocated and the countries of origin they exploit, and the reality of their intransigence is never fully acknowledged by those of us working towards change.  We cling to the positive, private conversations with low-level officials, to the humble admissions delivered by well-prepped representatives during scattered civil society engagements. We amplify their resolve for change without holding their past promises to account. The power imbalance is taxing to overcome; we work only on the fringes of their tolerance and with an unspoken concession to their red lines. 

The reality is that while we now struggle to unmute ourselves several times a day, the people who should be listening are not hearing us anyway.  It is a hard truth to swallow, as it undermines the basis for much of our advocacy. But perhaps in accepting that the pandemic has changed the way we work, we really do change the way we work.  Taking the same choreographed discussions and processes online is not enough; to “build it back better,” we must acknowledge that the greatest barriers to real reform are an entrenched lack of interest and incentive, no matter how these inconvenient truths complicate our theories of change. We must not mistake greater accessibility for greater inclusivity, and ensure that the coming myriad of webinars, e-learning modules, and other virtual events invite a diversity of perspectives, most importantly those of migrant workers themselves. 

And in coming to terms with our “new normal,” we cannot work towards the future without centring the present; the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe requires urgent action that can only be facilitated through sincere readiness and cooperation from the Gulf states. Origin countries and community groups, even with infinite resources, remain constrained within their limited jurisdictions and impeded by slow, apathetic, and often hostile bureaucracies, unable to efficiently provide food, shelter, legal support, repatriation, and related needs. The way forward must recognize that the same barriers to safeguarding the welfare of millions of migrant workers today are those that will continue to obstruct structural reforms tomorrow.


Image credit: Flickr/Alfredo