How The Middle East Used Pandemic As A Cover-up To Expel South Asian Migrants

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Bibek Kumar was on his way to a shop in Sanaya city, Doha when the Qatari police arrested him on March 15 after telling him he was being taken to be tested for the new coronavirus. Instead, he was detained in a detention center for several days and then deported to Nepal. He was not allowed a chance to collect his belongings and due-salaries or end-of-service perks.

“It was very terrible inside the center. There were hundreds of migrant workers. It was notoriously overcrowded and we were not given enough food and water. The water was very dirty. Food was served in plastic bags,” said Bibek, who hails from Nepal and had been working as a security guard in a company. He is one of the friends of my relative who was deported alongside other Nepali migrant workers. He went to Qatar after borrowing some money to pay recruitment brokers to take there. He was promised a high paying job but it failed to materialize when he arrived there. He was working on a low salary.

“The Government of Nepal should make efforts to take those who are stranded there. They are in appalling conditions,” he added.

Qatar used the global pandemic of COVID-19 as a smokescreen to expel dozens of Nepali migrant workers illegally last month, according to the human rights group Amnesty International. Qatar detained and illegally deported dozen of migrant workers on March 15 and 19 under the pretext of testing for the new coronavirus.

Twenty men from Nepal were quoted by the British rights group as saying Qatari police had apprehended hundreds of workers, most of them from Nepal then held them in detention centers for several days. Then they were deported to Nepal.

It’s a cruel fate for South Asian migrant workers in the Middle East who face an uncertain future as the unwanted workforce is haggled over by host countries during the pandemic. The oil-rich Middle East countries have relied on the cheap labor of South Asian migrant workers to boost their economies.

Migrant workers make up half or more of the population in wealthy Gulf countries. The lavish lifestyle of citizens of Gulf nations is maintained by a vast majority of such workers. Many migrant workers labor in scorching hot to transform the region’s deserts into sophisticated cities. Megamalls, artificial islands, luxury hotels, stadiums, highways, skyscrapers have been possible due to years of graft by the labor of migrant workers. They have sacrificed their priceless years and family in Gulf countries.

Many of these migrant workers have low paying jobs. The promise of high paying jobs often fails to materialize. Thousands of migrant workers have been tempted to Gulf nations, despite barbarous working conditions and atrocious abuse of migrant workers’ rights endemic. These countries have faced longstanding criticism from several rights groups for exploiting migrant workers.

Now, the global health pandemic has made the situation very worst, as due to embargo, migrant workers in Gulf countries are losing their jobs, running out of money and desperate to fly back to their home countries. They are crammed into gulf dorms, often in unsanitary conditions, and are facing the high rates of COVID-19 infections. These workers fall through cracks in coronavirus pandemic.

 The United Arab Emirates has threatened the laborer’s home countries, including Nepal and other South Asian nations that won’t repatriate with possible quotas on migrant workers in the future. Other Gulf nations also can follow the suit. This could imperil the major source of remittances in the coming days. Some host countries deny accepting returnees over concerns about checking their outbreak.

The Gulf countries owe these migrant workers a debt of gratitude for their valuable contributions and should provide better health care, accommodations during this crisis but unfortunately, in a shameful abdication of responsibilities, the Gulf nations are abandoning these workers. 

The work of South Asian migrant workers is important for the destination country and their home nations. Their remittances are a lifeline for South Asian countries and have been soaring in recent years. According to a report, Nepal collected $8.6 billion in remittances last year. Gulf countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Aram Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain are the favorite destinations for Nepali workers. Qatar hosts about 400,000 Nepali workers and most of them are working on the construction of stadiums that are built for the 2022 FIFA World Cup to be held in Qatar.

There are around 2 million foreign migrant workers in Qatar, mostly from South Asia, who make up about 90 percent of the country’s working population. According to the World Bank’s latest report, South Asian countries greatly rely on remittances from their migrant workers.

The lockdown and cessation of economic activities are a tough blow for migrant workers in Gulf countries and have rendered them without a livelihood. The host countries should provide better health care, accommodations, and food. They should relax immigration rules for those with expiring visas.

There is a high risk of migrant worker’s exposure to COVID-19. If they are not treated like their citizens and are deprived of protections and better health care, the host countries should face the threat of an outbreak that can be hard to rein in. South Asian countries should come with a concrete plan to address the quandary of their citizens who are struggling hard in Gulf countries due to the pandemic.

Governments of South Asian countries should quickly access the situation of migrant workers and address their problems. They should go after bilateral cooperation where the Gulf countries assure that they will take care of their citizens (migrant workers) while making necessary preparations to accommodate and take care of those workers who want to return.

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