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The Invisible Figures: The Experiences of African Migrants in the Middle East

By Olufunmilayo Obadofin

Image by Gigi Ibrahim

In 2020, Sahara Reporters published a video of a Nigerian woman identified as Adetomisin, begging for help to return home from an unknown location in Oman. The young Nigerian recounted her story, explaining that her travel agent tricked her after promising she will be working in the United States. Instead, Adetomisin was dispatched to Oman, where she was subjected to forced labour, humiliated, and bullied in an undignifying environment.

Similarly, a 26-year-old graduate from Nigeria also shared her predicaments in the hands of her employer. According to the lady, she enrolled with an agency in 2018 to work as a teacher in Saudi Arabia, but when she arrived, she was assigned to work as domestic help and is presently unable to return home.

Human Trafficking and irregular migration of females with the false promises of better opportunities is an endemic that has flooded the African and Asian Migration systems.

In this line, according to Azza Mohammed, a gender activist in Libya, civil conflicts and poverty are the main reasons for this migration.

“War is a key reason for migration in my part of the continent; there is a lot of war in Libya and the surrounding counties. I’m also aware that some immigrants depart for economic reasons. They want to get better jobs,” she said.

Patricia Akor, the Head of Programs at Africa Youth Growth Foundation agrees with this view. According to Akor:

“Conflict, which results in the forced displacement of people from their homes, and the search for greener pastures as a result of unemployment and lack of enabling environments, are reasons why people migrate to other regions.”

With the rise in civil conflicts and poverty in Africa, there has equally been a global uptick in immigration.

According to the 2020 International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) ‘World Migration Report, it is estimated that there are 281 million international migrants in the world accounting for 3.6 per cent of the global population. Of this number, statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed that about 70 per cent of those trafficked are females.

However, while the collection of worldwide immigration data has improved, there is still a major gap for sex-disaggregated data in the realm of irregular movement, which is the movement of persons to a new place of residence or transit that takes place outside the regulatory norms of the sending, transit and receiving countries.

The accurate number of irregular migrants who die, go missing, abused, unskilled or integrated with families as well as open data on licensed brokers and undocumented migrants are all examples of this gap. This is concerning, given the presence of exploratory systems such as the Kafala system, which is legal in most Middle Eastern countries.

Kafala System

The Kafala System is a legal framework that regulates the relationship between migrant workers and their employers in Jordan, Lebanon, and all Arab Gulf states except Iraq. Under this system, migrant workers are required by the system to have an in-country sponsor or employer who is responsible for their visa and legal status. However, many employers seize their employees’ passports, and the government offers immigrants little or no legal protection.

According to Sans Joe (not the real name), a Nigerian migrant in the UAE, the passports are also seized by the sponsors who brought them into the country.

“Sadly, most of them are Africans like us. It is business for them. They bring young girls and older women in at the cost of one million nairas ($2,408), and expect them to pay back five million nairas ($12,040),” she says.

Female migrants in the Middle East, particularly irregular migrants, are susceptible to various forms of domestic abuse under the Kafala System, according to Azza. To get away from this, they are exposed to even greater abuse. She highlighted examples of people being promised a better job in exchange for sex, being coerced into prostitution, smuggled, jailed, and eventually dying in prisons.

The explorative and exploitative tendency of the Kafala System has notably made it an issue of international attention, given the high number of migrants that move into the region. Since 1990, the share of world migrants who are in the Middle East and North Africa region grew from 13.4 million to 34.4 million in 2015. Over 70% of this population are in the Gulf states.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), migrants in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states account for more than 10% of all worldwide migrants, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates hosting the world’s third and fifth largest migrant populations, respectively. The share of non-nationals in the workforce in GCC countries is among the highest in the world, at 70.4 % on average, with individual countries varying from 56 to 93 %.

More reports have gone further to show that a significant number of these migrants could be women from Africa and Asia. One such report is from the Lebanese Ministry of Labour which documented that the country hosts over 250,000 migrant domestic women workers. The ILO also estimated that the Arab States welcomed 23 million migrant workers in 2017, with 9 million (39%) of them being women. Nonetheless, the Middle East has benefited from this migratory population.

For instance, migrants in the Arab States remitted nearly 124 billion USD in 2017. Globally, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia ranked second and third in the world (after the United States), and Kuwait and Qatar ranked eighth and tenth, respectively, in terms of remittance outflow from immigrants.

The Invisible Figures

Patricia Pradhan, the co-founder of Domestic Workers Unite which works to protect the rights of domestic workers in Lebanon, says there is no accuracy in the data on the death of migrants in the Middle East. She describes the data reported as ‘pro forma’.

“For years, the death figure bandied around in the media was one per week. It was only when an investigative journalist sent a request to General Security in 2017 that the accurate figure of 2 per week came out,”. She goes on to say that this excludes the ‘Jane Does’ in the mortuaries and bodies buried in Lebanon.”

Azza argues that some deaths are not reported in order to protect the nation’s reputation. Since they entered the country illegally, there are no strong arguments to hold the government responsible, so these deaths are not documented to avoid.

In the cases of death recorded, there is hardly any investigation into the causes. According to Pradhan, most of these deaths are nearly always classified as suicides, but no serious investigations are carried out.

In an old investigation carried out by the Human Right Watch, out of 95 migrant domestic workers who died in Lebanon between January 2007 and August 2008, the embassies of the migrants classify 40 of the 95 deaths as suicides, while 24 others were caused by workers falling from high buildings, typically in an attempt to flee their employers. Only 14 domestic employees were reported dead as a result of illnesses or other health-related problems. While the data shows the name, age, country and cause of death, there was no data as to the sex of the victims or survivors.

Similarly, The Missing Migrants Portal recorded 141 women who died while migrating in Africa, 90 who died in Southeast Asia and 20 while trying to cross the US-Mexico border in 2017. Despite the horrendous number of deaths in the region, the Gulf states are failing to properly investigate why so many migrant workers are dying.

Bangladesh, for example, received bodies of a total of 3,652 migrant workers in 2021, which is 25 per cent more than that of the previous year. The highest number of bodies totalling 1,295 bodies came home from Saudi Arabia, followed by 725 from Malaysia, 374 from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), 323 from Kuwait and 100 from Bahrain.

These statistics in many instances do not capture some of the unreported cases of irregular migrants. Most African nations have no record of any publicly accessible government-owned data sources that document the deaths of African migrants in the Middle East.

Azza explains that reporting and investigating immigrants’ deaths in the Middle East is shrouded by irregularities inter alia- lack of transparency, low or no priority of immigrants, and a biased legal system towards immigrants. She adds that females who are irregular migrants lack the courage to seek legal redress, and even when they do the enforcement authorities take advantage of their status to exploit them more.

Akor attributed some of the causes of these deaths to vices such as organ harvesting, drowning during migration and importantly the unfavourable working conditions and abusive treatment the migrants are subjected to.

The system prevents migrants from changing jobs and employers, and also allows them to be subjected to intensely abusive conditions and in some cases with little or no pay. This is evident in the case of Alem Dechasa, who committed suicide at the hospital where she was receiving treatment after being badly beaten by a man who was identified as the owner of the employment agency that brought her to Lebanon.

Migrant domestic workers are particularly exempted from Article 7 of the Labour Law, which denies them protections that other workers enjoy, such as a minimum wage, work-hour limitations, a weekly rest day, overtime compensation, and the right to form unions. In a survey conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2013 for 99 female migrants in the UAE, more than 24 reported having been abused physically or sexually by their employers.

Some of the treatments include starvation for ‘unsatisfactory work’, sleeping in unconducive places, and denial of medical aid among others. Yet none of these cases has been prosecuted by the police.

The Kafala legal system continues to scoff at and ostracize migrants in the Gulf region from an unbiased justice service. In 2009, Tuti Tursilawati, a 25-year-old mother from West Java, Indonesia, left her four-year-old kid to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia to help support her family. Her employer, a Saudi male, sexually abused her on a regular basis while she lived and worked in his home, according to her testimony. Tuti tried to defend herself with a stick one day in May 2010, when her employer attempted to rape her again. She hit him, killing him. She attempted to flee the house and reach safety. Instead, she was located and gang-raped by a group of nine men. Despite the circumstances, she was apprehended by police one week later and sentenced to death in 2011.

Migrating to Freedom

After heavy criticism of the system by international and local rights-based organisations, many of the Gulf Cooperation Council states have worked to reform practices around the Kafala system.

For instance, Bahrain announced that it would dismantle the Kafala system in August 2009, and went further to establish the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) that would be responsible for sponsoring migrant workers instead of private employees. Kuwait also announced that it would abolish the Kafala in February 2011.

Lebanon, on the other hand, launched a contract that stipulates clearly that domestic workers can leave the household during their weekly day off and annual leave, and that they are not required to pay recruitment fees or related costs. It also prohibited employers from withholding wages and confiscating passports and other personal documents in 2020.

However, some of these reforms are not effective and do not adequately address the issues of injustice and the severe harshness of the system to unskilled workers in the region. Despite the reforms in Kuwait and Bahrain, domestic workers are still obliged to have a sponsor whilst staying in the country.

Pradhan calls for a total reform that protects the rights and guarantees the independence of both skilled and unskilled labourers.

“The only thing that will stop the deaths is the abolition of the Kafala System. If women had the ability to leave their employers’ house and to change sponsors, nearly all these ‘suicides’ wouldn’t happen,” she said.

How Availability of Data Can Address This

Civil society, according to Azza, has a critical role to play in enforcing the Kafala system’s reform legislation and ensuring that migrants’ rights are maintained.

“It’s also critical for members of civil society to be trained on data gathering and analysis from reputable sources, as well as increased awareness on the negative aspects of migration while they are still in their home country,” she said.

This could help to increase ongoing efforts and improve the work of international organisations and bodies such as the Migration Data Portal designed to help relevant stakeholders access data for informed decision-making.

At the state level, it is important that governments enforce strict policies that prevent their citizens from travelling to these danger-zone countries, especially through illegal migration. An example is Kenya’s move to revoke the licence of almost a thousand agencies that work to send its citizens to the Middle East in 2014.

Akor, whose organisation -Africa Youth Growth Foundation is part of the Migration Data Portal, added that governments should fund their national bureau of statistics, and provide adequate structures to enable them to carry out their responsibilities.

Going forward, she proposes that adequate and viable data, particularly sex-disaggregated data will in the end help policymakers make informed decisions for the benefit of the masses and somewhat help prospective migrants to make informed choices.

An open data system where potential migrants can apply or access credible migration agencies should be adopted while also ensuring that the bio-data and contracts of each migrant are available for social security.

Overall, Akor suggests that governments in developing countries, including Nigeria, need to take ownership of migration management, create more jobs, and partner with embassies for a more flexible visa regime.

This article is part of Open Heroines’ writing grants series, intended to elevate the voices of women and non-binary people in the open spaces.

Olufunmilayo Obadofin is a Nigerian data journalist, researcher and human rights advocate. Find her on Twitter, @habbibbat.

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