RC SPECIAL REPORT: ASEAN migrant workers brace for the worst as coronavirus continue to invade the Middle East


Before COVID-19 came into the picture, many if not all of them, were already facing a number of challenges. One of these is human rights.

By Henri Abenis-Macahilo

Countries in the Middle East have imposed various levels of restrictions in desperate attempt to prevent coronavirus COVID-19 infections from having a full grip on the region. Yet, after all the travels bans and halting of commercial flights, Middle East has confirmed cases of over 15,000 infection as of Thursday, March 12, a day after the World Health Organization officially called the outbreak a “pandemic”.

Illustrative photo of a treatment facility for COVID-19 (Photo: InfoNurse)

In Iran, which has the highest number of infected in the region on record, some 611 people were already killed with about 12,729 were ill nationwide as of March 15, according to official and unofficial statistics compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Outside of Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon also have recorded deaths from COVID-19 in the Middle East, albeit comparatively minimal in numbers.

In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, there were already confirmed numbers of infected, but no recorded deaths.

In Bahrain, it was recently announced that 15 more have been added to the number of infected, making 195 as the total number of cases all in all.

The Kuwaiti government said the country has a total of 104 cases of infections recorded, while Qatar has reportedly 337 confirmed cases.

Saudi Arabia has 103 cases of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics, causing authorities to impose a lockdown in the oil-producing region of Qatif and closing cinemas until further notice, reported state news agency SPA.

G20 economies have to postpone two previously planned meetings in the Kingdom.

Old village of Tarout, Qatif, Saudi Arabia (Photo: AhmadElq/Wikipedia)

In the UAE, the country’s Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) has announced 11 new cases of coronavirus infection on Thursday, March 12, following required testing and monitoring of individuals placed under quarantine as suspected cases subsequent to their entry into the UAE.  This raised the total number of positive coronavirus cases in the UAE to 85.

Middle East governments impose restrictions to abate coronavirus spread

Many of these countries in the Middle East, especially those who have large number of confirmed cases of infection have already imposed partial lockdowns, with governments discouraging people from holding or attending large social gatherings such as church services and prayer meetings.

Thousands of ASEAN migrant workers have to postpone scheduled annual vacations or work-related travels as international flights were halted until further notice.

Following protocols of the host countries, diplomatic missions of ASEAN sending countries are in close coordination with the authorities as expected.

“We are in close touch with the MOFA Dubai for coordination on anything relative to COVID-19. MOFA UAE is our immediate point of contact,” Philippine Consul General Paul Raymund Cortes in Dubai and the Northern Emirates told Rights Corridor.

“We are working on protocols to assist our nationals should a lockdown occur. We are always bound by the UAE government authorities’ procedures in this regard,” added Mr. Cortes.

Meanwhile, Philippine Ambassador Hjayceelyn Quintana assured all Filipino migrant workers in the UAE that their office, like all Philippine embassies, has a contingency plan for different scenarios such as conflict, natural disasters, and outbreaks, which involves assistance for Filipino nationals, including repatriation, if needed.

“The contingency plan includes coordination with host government institutions and the Filipino community in UAE. The Philippine Government also seeks commitment from host governments all over the world to assist Filipinos in such emergency situations,” Ms. Quintana said.

International flights have been halted until further notice. (Photo: Abu Dhabi International Airport)

UAE authorities confirmed that there were four Filipinos initially found to have COVID-19 and were being given maximum support and treatment. One of the four patients was later tested negative for COVID-19.

Migrant workers cope with the pandemic

The Arab States region is one of the main destination regions globally for migrant workers, and the numbers have increased substantially in recent years. ASEAN remains a net exporter of human capital with 60–70% of ASEAN migrant workers reside outside the region, such as non-ASEAN Asian countries and the Middle East.

Many of ASEAN migrant workers are employed in engineering services, nursing, architectural services, tourism, medical and dental services, and accounting services, while a few of them work as domestic workers.

Families and communities of these workers rely on monthly remittances. In fact, majority of migrant workers families are solely dependent on the money transferred to them by their loved ones abroad.

And before COVID-19 came into the picture, many if not all of them, were already facing a number of challenges. One of these is human rights.

In the current state of affairs, migrant workers all over the world are “in the cusp of double victimization”, first by possible forceful eviction from the destination countries and second, by the debt trap back home and the prospective financial vulnerability, according to human rights experts.

And unless ASEAN governments are willing to deploy effective, timely, and coordinated response to contain the epidemics, as well as protect the rights of all migrant workers and their families, labour migration rights experts believe there is a lingering fear that all workers will suffer much more in this crisis.

However, for many ASEAN migrant workers, life abroad goes on. Although mindful of the state of affairs surrounding the pandemic, with many of them closely monitoring developments with regard to governments’ actions and pronouncements, they do not let fear and panic disrupt their daily activities.

For many Asian migrants in the Gulf region, life goes on despite the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: The Huntr)

Ces Bitagon, 49-year old Filipino health worker at a public hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said she is not worried at all of possibility of getting infected by patients with COVID-19 for as long as she follows hospital protocols.

“I just have to be extra careful. We don’t do tests here for COVID-19 patients. But if there will be any patient brought to us for admission, we will refer them immediately to a well-equipped tertiary hospital for treatment. Although, I really believe that just like the previous epidemics, this too shall pass,” she said.

The mother-of-one also said everything in Riyadh is normal and the only thing that was affected so far is their vacation leave as international flights were temporarily suspended by the Saudi Arabian government.

Sheree M., a Malaysian who has been working as a flight attendant in one of the major airlines in the region for 12 years, also thinks that fear and panic will not save one from getting infected by coronavirus, especially in the type of job she is in.

“I think you can’t hide all the time. You are bound to have human contact and if the world is to move forward we must find a mid-point. I can worry [being infected]but this is my work. I can take steps to look after myself and hope that people around me would take steps to look after themselves which in return helps me too.”

At the moment, Sheree’s company has not stopped its operation yet. But in the event that flights will be halted sooner than expected, the 37-year-old could only hope that her and her husband’s savings will keep them afloat for as long as it takes.

“Financially, I do hope I have enough to weather me through. I hope it would be the same for everyone. It is a very volatile period for everyone around the world. The economy is already on a slowdown and with this added on, it would take a while for the world to bounce back,” she told RC via WhatsApp.

“My advice for migrant workers like me: Brace for it and have faith. Keep yourself safe and healthy. Financially, try your best to be prudent. Whatever happens, tomorrow will still come,” she said in conclusion.

The plight of the irregular ASEAN migrant workers amid the COVID-19 outbreak

While governments from both sending and receiving countries currently work in cooperation to effectively and timely ensure that the health, safety and the rights of migrant workers are protected during global crises and epidemics, irregular migrant workers who are undocumented and therefore unrecognised by governments, are left with little or no protection at all.

It is undeniable that there are hundreds of thousands irregular workers from South and Southeast Asia working in the Middle East especially in the GCC countries – Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia – with very low wage rates and terrible working conditions.

Often lacking in formal education and burdened with responsibilities and debt back in their home countries, these irregular migrant workers find that in the majority of cases they are always in the disadvantage.

Construction workers in Qatar. (Photo credit: Ryan Bailey/business-humanrights.org)

“In the Middle East region, irregular migrant workers are even more vulnerable in times of the coronavirus crisis. They have no legal identity and access to medical institutions, which, to a large extent, poses critical diplomatic, institutional, and social welfare challenges for sending countries’ diplomats and officials,” explained labour migration expert Froilan Malit, Jr., founder and managing director of Rights Corridor.

Malit stressed, it is essential that sending countries must continue to build stronger and closer relationships with their diasporic communities in order to effectively monitor their current health conditions, as well as offer necessary assistance to their nationals, particularly low-income, distressed migrant workers.

“This is an essential human right that should be both upheld by the sending and receiving countries across the Middle East region,” he said.

Experts take on the effects of the outbreak to migrants, their families, and their economy

With the rapid rise in the number of countries of with reported cases of COVID-19 infection, experts deem that the outbreak may continue for a few months, a year, or even longer. This would lead, to a global economic slowdown, labour migration experts said.

“When the global economy slows down, migrant workers will have lesser opportunities for employment and for earning decent income. A large number of migrant workers may be sent home,” explained Sinapan Samydorai, regional consultant at Task Force on ASEAN Migrant Workers (TFAMW).

“Many migrant workers will have no choice but to return home with no prospect of finding decent jobs.  It’s worse for the migrant workers families who depended solely on remittances.  With limited income or no income, they will slide back into poverty is they have no social protection,” he added.

According to Mr. Samydorai, the ASEAN member states are introducing economic stimulus plans and workplace measures to protect the health and the income of workers, during pandemic the COVID-19. The key is effective implementation of this economic stimulus and workplace measures – the problem often in ASEAN is the gap between the paper agreements and the actual implementation.

“But governments from both sending and receiving countries need to cooperate, effectively and timely, to ensure the rights of migrant workers. If the situation becomes worse in the Middle East, the ASEAN countries need to make arrangement to bring their migrant workers home – to protect the health of the migrant workers,” stressed Mr. Samidorai.

To ensure people’s health and prevent further spread of covid-19, lockdown are imposed by both authoritarian governments and liberal democracies. For authorities, this is the way to ensure their own health and prevent the spread of covid-19.

However, some human rights experts said lockdowns, social distancing (quarantines), and contact tracing have a huge impact on migrant workers’ employment conditions and income.

Locking down the mobility of migrant workers for longer period of time will definitely have detrimental effects in the overall economy of the country especially those heavily reliant on remittances, said Lawyer Anurag Devkota of Law and Policy Forum for Social Justice (LAPSOJ), Nepal-based organisation of human rights lawyers.

“Migrant receiving countries should rather focus on holding the migrant workers, considering the pace of work required to deal with the after effects of the ongoing crisis. Forcible eviction is not the answer, rather non-discrimination measures and protection of human rights is,” he stressed.

To ensure people’s health and prevent further spread of COVID-19, lockdowns are imposed by both authoritarian governments and liberal democracies. (Photo: ANN)

Mr. Devkota suggests that instead of sending workers back home without prior notice, sending countries should rather treat workers like their own citizens and guarantee health-related safety measures in the workplace, including quarantine mechanisms.

“Covid-19 is a timely reminder for the migrant worker sending countries to revamp and rethink their strategy and diplomacy. As the global economy is hitting rock bottom amid COVID 19, and subsequent oil related crisis looming over in the Middle East, chances of low skilled workers being jobless are very high,” Mr. Devkota said.

“The government should not just be prepared for the ongoing crisis but oversee and prepare for the aftermath effects of the disaster. Similarly, a reserved emergency fund to finance emergency repatriation of migrant workers during the time of disasters and outbreaks should align with the [public]diplomacy plans.” (ham/Rights Corridor)