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Migrant Workers in the Middle East: Calling Awareness to Legalized Abuses of Human Rights

Migrant Workers in the Middle East: Calling Awareness to Legalized Abuses of Human Rights

Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, speaks on migrant worker abuse in the Middle East.

by Jonathan McCollum

Labor related deaths in the Middle East among migrant workers amount to as many as “one death a week,” alerts Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. Most alarming is the scale of the abuse and exploitation, which, according to Whitson, is “readily resolvable.”

Focusing mainly on the plight of migrant workers in the oil-rich Gulf nations, which in some countries make up to as much as 90% of the labor force, Whitson informed her UCLA audience of the systemic abuse of human rights in the region. Enabling these abuses is “a triangle of oppression,” said Whitson, which seeks to exploit domestic and construction workers recruited from the nations in South, Central, and East Asia.

The recruits, eager for the job opportunities offered by the wealthy nations of the Persian Gulf, arrive in their new host countries to find themselves in a rigid racial and ethnic hierarchy that, in cooperation with an oppressive legal framework, suppresses their basic human rights, including their right to terminate their own employment.

Employers often confiscate passports and garnish workers’ wages, even refusing to issue payment until remunerated for the hefty fees levied by recruiters. Workers, lodged in deplorable housing and forced to labor long hours often in dangerous conditions without pay, cannot even flee these circumstances due to absconding laws that threaten migrants with imprisonment.

An end to this oppression is “achievable,” in Whitson’s view, but only if governments would take the initiative to abolish the restrictive sponsorship laws, which permit exploitation by placing immigrants in the custody of native individuals, and prosecute those that violate existing laws protecting migrants. Human Rights Watch, through constant monitoring of abuses and an ambitious media campaign that seeks to change popular perceptions in the Arab world about the plight of migrant workers, remains committed to building an awareness of this international tragedy.

An audio podcast of the talk is available.  

The event was sponsored by the UCLA International Institute and the Program on International Migration

Center for Near Eastern Studies