Migrant workers in Middle East look for way home amid pandemic


Labour forces across the Middle East that have greased the wheels of the oil states’ economies, cleaned the homes of the middle classes and often raised their children, are suddenly on the move.

The twin crises of COVID-19 and unprecedented financial stress has forced a reckoning like no other between employers and labour companies on one hand and masses of workers from all parts of the world.

According to the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, it will have to be looked at whether such an accommodation can ever return to the region.

“One would have to look at it and see is this model sustainable,” he told a panel at the Beirut Institute think-tank this month. “We have been for many years trying to escape that model with varying degrees of success but I think this is going to accelerate the necessity for us to find something a little bit more sustainable.”

The Middle East, and especially Gulf states, employ the highest proportion of migrant workers in the world. In the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, migrants substantially outnumber the overall national population, while Saudi Arabia has most foreign workers overall with 12 million, compared with its national population of 20 million.

While the region has fared relatively well in the coronavirus crisis, tens of thousands of people have still been struck down by the virus, the vast majority being migrant workers. Gulf governments have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on stimulus packages to shore up the livelihoods of citizens but have offered no direct financial relief for the migrants who in countries such as Qatar and the UAE make up more than 87% of the population.

“More than 200,000 people are relying on food aid,” said Krishna Neupane, a Nepali citizen working in Kuwait. He said his company was paying 75% of his salary but that thousands of others had lost their jobs and were struggling to keep up with rental payments.

In Oman and Bahrain, mass quarantines were seen by some as an opportunity to send workers home, accelerating a process of encouraging their own citizens to take up their jobs where possible, said Froilan Malit Jr., a researcher at Cambridge University who studies migrant worker populations.

The UAE has allowed legal migrant workers to take vacation time early to ride out the pandemic in their home countries with the hope they can return within a few months, while encouraging workers who have lost their jobs to talk to their national embassies about going home.

India has sent navy ships to Dubai to collect some of its citizens and arranged repatriation flights for those who can afford them. Kuwait has waived fines for undocumented workers who want to leave and offered to pay their fares. It has also said those who do go home may be able to return.

In Lebanon, limited repatriations for some of the country’s estimated 250,000 migrant workers, mostly domestic workers or labourers, have been made possible.

But so far fewer than 3,000 workers have managed to leave. Those who remain face a bleak future, with a plunge in the currency slashing the dollar value of salaries.

A report released on Friday predicted that millions of workers would eventually leave the region as the post-lockdown recession took hold, dramatically cutting the population of some states. (Source: The Guardian)