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Thousands of migrants detained and deported across GCC, with no regards to their rights

On May 31, 2023

Another wave of detention and deportation campaigns have taken place across the GCC in recent months, particularly in Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Weekly, officials report hundreds of migrant workers detained in searches and raids. Most workers are detained for having inaccurate or expired documentation, but also for often undefined “violations of the labour law” and even traffic violations. Workers detained in these campaigns are generally subject to administrative deportation, and do not have the means or the opportunity to contest their case.

Detention and deportations are also reported weekly in Oman, where efforts appear to be concentrated on removing foreign workers from jobs reserved for Omanis. Most migrant workers are said to be detained for “violating the labour law,” and working in occupations different from those listed on their visas. Omani laws dictate the employer/sponsor would also be penalised for employing migrants in nationalised positions or irregularly, yet reports make no mention of consequences imposed on the sponsor.

In Bahrain, the Labour Market Regulatory Authority reported that it has intensified inspection campaigns, conducted in collaboration with various government authorities, by more than 50% in the first three months of 2023. The number of deported migrant workers has seen a 500% increase compared to the same period last year.

In Kuwait, intensified campaigns are also taking place against the backdrop of a highly vocalised effort to reduce foreign workers, and to reduce migrants' access to social and public services, from healthcare to roads. Like Oman, weekly reports of workers detained for violating residency and labour laws feature in local media. Over 9,000 migrant workers were deported between January and April of 2023, allegedly for both criminal and administrative violations.  According to Al-Anba, over 131,000 residents are in violation of residency laws, but it is unclear if Kuwait’s campaign is targeting all individuals with irregular status.

Saudi also recurrently deports thousands of migrant workers, with the largest numbers hailing from Ethiopia, Yemen, and Eritrea. The Kingdom’s previous campaigns have also focused on these communities, and have been deployed with a particular brutality. Since the start of this year, Saudi has detained over 250,000 irregular migrants already, with numbers on track to reach over 800,000 by the end of the year. At the same time, the country continues to recruit hundreds of thousands of workers for domestic work and other low-income jobs, including nationalities subject to mass deportation campaigns.

Migrant workers who are caught up in these campaigns rarely have the right to appeal their deportation, as they do not go through a judicial process. Around 97% of the 30,000 migrants deported from Kuwait last year were deported administratively. These campaigns occur frequently, and reflect the failures of immigration and labour laws that push migrants into an undocumented status. As MR has previously reported in our coverage of detention and deportation campaigns in the Gulf, attention must be paid to the reasons migrant workers become irregular in the first place — which tie back to duplicitous recruitment processes, exploitative working conditions, and employers’ control over renewing workers residency and visa status. The frequent recurrence of these campaigns in parallel with uptick in recruitment also reveals the fundamental disconnect between stated policy aims — to reduce the irregular migrant population and — and the Gulf’s migrant-dependent labour market, which both fosters the exploitation that pushes workers into irregularity and encourages unbounded recruitment.