Bahrain’s Capital Trustees Board recently approved recommendations to develop a unified system for collecting outstanding municipal fees and debts from migrants in Bahrain. Under the new system, migrants with unsettled municipality debts will not be allowed to use government transactions and services such as issuing or renewing identity cards.
Additionally, the system will be linked with Bahrain’s border controls and will prevent migrants with uncleared debts from leaving the country. The Trustees Board (previously known as Manama Municipal Council) stated that migrants may obtain a clearance certificate, for a fee, to confirm the absence of any outstanding dues before departing the country.
According to a government official from the Board, the combined municipal debt of migrants who previously resided in and left Manama reached approximately BD2.5 million over the last 15 years.
The move comes as already-weak social protections for migrants have eroded and left migrants most impacted by the cost of living crisis. In the last decade, Bahrain removed various subsidies for migrants causing the prices of public services and products to increase, including subsidies for electricity and water which were gradually removed in 2016. Coupled with the lack of a minimum wage and poor labour practices, some low-income migrants fail to pay their bills or fall victim to predatory lenders.
Imposing travel bans on debtors and limiting their access to essential government services is not a new practice. In 2012, Human Rights Watch urged the government to end the entrapment of migrants who were prevented from leaving the country but also prevented from obtaining new residency and work permits, and therefore unable to work to pay off their debts. Banks and telecommunication companies, in particular, continue to pursue court-issued travel bans on migrants who do not pay back loans or fees.
If the new recommendations are accepted, migrants will no longer have automatic permission to leave Bahrain. Essentially, this would entail the reintroduction of "exit visa," which was previously abolished by the Bahraini government.
There is also a striking contrast in the way that the Bahraini government approaches debt to private and public institutions, versus dues owed to migrant workers. While strict measures are used to recoup debts, the Bahrain government fails to curb wage theft and has no mechanisms in place (or proposed) to protect the thousands of migrants who leave the country without receiving their wages and entitlements from their employers. The case of G.P. Zachariades company, which was primarily contracted by the Bahraini government, is a striking example: GPZ workers were owed a total of BD250,000 (US$ 663,144) in salaries and settlements but left Bahrain without obtaining their dues.
Migrant-Rights.org urges the Bahraini government to reject the Board’s recommendations and to improve labour conditions and social protections for migrants so that they can avoid debts. These measures should include a mechanism to ensure that migrant workers receive their dues from their employers before leaving the country.