The Gulf States, modern slavery and the refugee crisis

Published on 28 September 2015

Pauline Oosterhoff

Research Fellow

As Europe continues to grapple with the refugee crisis on its borders, the rich Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the UAE) are under fire for doing next to nothing for refugees from Syria.

The refusal of the Gulf Arab States to officially take in refugees is, Sara Hashash of Amnesty International  says, “utterly shameful”. The Gulf States should “offer up workplaces, family unification schemes, essentially other legal avenues for them to get into Gulf countries and to be able to earn a living,”  recommends Oxfam’s Syria country director Daniel Gorevan.

It is worth remembering why Syrians have not already flocked to the Gulf states: those states have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and thus accept no obligation to take in refugees.

This is part of these countries’ broader pattern of neglect of basic international human-rights standards. The Gulf States routinely and brutally repress peaceful dissent and freedom of expression. They manage their structural shortage of labour with a system that imports massive numbers of unassimilated foreigners without granting them labour rights.

If the Gulf States did accept Syrians en masse, most of them would probably end up in a semi-enslaved underclass

Foreign workers already outnumber native citizens in places like UAE and Qatar. Unlike the Syrians, many foreign workers hailing from Europe, South- and Southeast Asia are not Muslim and speak no Arabic. If the Gulf states were to grant asylum to Syrian refugees, they might inspire local citizens to stand up against the political elite.

For this reason, the Gulf states may be even more likely to repress the political rights of Syrians: they will be that much more worried about them in the context of the regional political crisis that has followed the Arab spring. In the current system, the welcome of foreign workers is temporary and rarely extends beyond work permits.

The system provides some of these temporary workers with great salaries and benefits, but provides little or no legal protection. For highly-educated professionals this may not be an issue, as they earn enough to make it worth their while. But for millions of the less highly-skilled South- and South-East Asians, working life is precarious and oppressive.

Among the Gulf States’ foreign workers without labour rights are an estimated 2.4 million domestic staff (PDF), many of them female migrants. They are vulnerable to exploitation, beatings and sexual assault. Abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Gulf States is widely known, with many organizations actively trying to raise awareness among potential candidates in the countries of origin.

Modern slavery in the Gulf – an extension of existing forms of local slavery in South Asia

Modern slavery in the Gulf is sometimes not so much a new practice of Gulf States as an extension of existing local forms of slavery in the countries from which the slaves are drawn, with deep roots in those source countries’ political and cultural histories.

Saptari, a desperately poor district in the Terai in Nepal and one of the major slavery hotpots in the world, sends an increasing number of migrants to the Gulf States.

Despite the fact that bonded labour is illegal in Nepal, the UN has found that about 10% of households in Saptari contain or have contained bonded labourers (PDF), mostly in the agricultural sector.

Now this system is globalizing.

“In our work in southeast Nepal, we find that unsafe migration and bonded labour are very closely connected,” says Ginny Baumann, Senior Programs Officer at the Freedom Fund:

“The families desperately hope that income from their members, mostly young men, working in the Middle East will allow them to pay off debts to the landlord for whom they work, and even perhaps allow them to purchase some land to be able to gain some independence. But when it goes wrong and the family member is in conditions of slavery in the destination area, then the family at home is often deeper in debt bondage because they have borrowed in order to send the worker abroad.”

Violence in such slavery hotspots as Nepal and neighbouring Bihar in northern India is less severe than the brutal war in Syria. But it is similar in the sense that it is structural and that the lack of livelihood options ultimately drives desperate people out.

Unlike the Syrian refugees, these emigrants can and do come back home, but often only for short stints until they run out of steam. For others the work experience is traumatizing and ends up destroying their health. While some migrants earn enough to send money back to their families, Ms Baumann notes, others are ultimately so immiserated that they are forced to escape and try to flee home.

Certainly, the Gulf countries can do more for the Syrians, and they should be blamed for failing to do so. However, there is no political incentive for the elites in the Gulf to change the labour system or sign the refugee convention. Increasing numbers of people from Saptari and places like it are flocking to countries such as the Gulf States where there is work, regardless of how oppressive the conditions may be, because there is no security and no way to make a living at home. Millions of people are desperate to get to the Gulf.

Almost every time I board a plane from Delhi or Islamabad to Dubai or Doha I meet people—often illiterate and lost—who tell me they are leaving to get work. When I ask how they will manage to find their way, they answer “a friend” will help them, which makes my heart sink with weariness.

The situation of many of today’s Syrian migrants is little different. Many of those being smuggled to Europe do not realize that the smugglers in whose hands they put themselves are so brutal that they will allow them to drown or suffocate should it come to that.

Would it be better for Syrian refugees to stay in refugee camps in Jordan or Turkey, or to immigrate as workers to the Gulf states?

Given the unpleasant realities of the conditions under which unskilled workers are currently employed in the Gulf States, it seems impossible for outsiders to say.

It certainly seems appropriate to demand that the Gulf States do more to take responsibility for solving humanitarian crises in their region; Europe and America cannot be expected to effectively absorb all four million of Syria’s current refugees (let alone millions of potential ones still inside the country). Nor can America and Europe resolve the Middle East’s catastrophic security crisis by intervening, indeed their interventions over the past decade and a half do not seem to have improved things.

The Middle East’s security and refugee crisis will ultimately have to be solved by the region’s own powers.

The Gulf States must do more than contribute cash to the immediate humanitarian response. They need to do more even than simply let the Syrians in. Rather, they need to let the Syrians in and grant them the sorts of social rights and legal protections that workers enjoy in most normal countries – rather than trying to dodge political risks by flying in millions of workers from far-off lands, and employing them under oppressive conditions that often amount to modern slavery.

The fact that the Gulf States are highly unlikely to make such changes is just one more of the infuriating conundrums that makes tackling the Middle East’s refugee crisis so baffling and frustrating.

Image: Syrian Kurdish refugees crossing into Turkey. Credit: European Commission DG ECH) – Flickr 


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