Human Trafficking in Qatar
The U.N. defines human trafficking as, “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.” Human trafficking in Qatar is a longstanding concern among international nonprofit organizations and human rights groups. The wealthy Gulf State’s ongoing campaign to bolster its soft power on the world stage and brand its capital Doha as a financial and investment hub comparable to its UAE neighbors Dubai and Abu Dhabi has gathered considerable momentum in recent years. The country is using large-scale construction projects such as an extravagant airport and lavish tourist attractions to cement the city’s position as an oasis of luxury and opulence. However, the dark cloud cast over how exactly the small but ambitious kingdom is achieving these construction feats remains a critical question mark.

The crown jewel of the Al Thani monarchy’s publicity campaign is undoubtedly the 2022 Qatar World Cup, which the country attained under questionable circumstances in a 2010 bid involving a high-profile bribery scandal and a multi-billion dollar proposal to secure the rights to host the upcoming soccer tournament. With the desert state’s day in the sun on the horizon, the kingdom began ramping up construction to prepare stadiums and indeed the city of Doha itself for its month in the spotlight of international attention.

Why Import Labor?

For a country like Qatar, one of the smallest sovereign states in the world covering an area roughly the size of Connecticut, such a large-scale undertaking presents one very crucial problem – labor. This is where human trafficking and labor exploitation are rearing their ugly heads time and time again in the development of the Gulf States. The ruling family and sponsors of Qatar’s development projects are seeking to meet the country’s manual labor needs by employing millions of vulnerable men and women from countries like India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Sudan seeking work abroad to send remittances back to their families. Today, of the 2.6 million people currently living in Qatar, 2.3 million are migrant workers from abroad working primarily in the domestic and construction sectors.

Abuse and Exploitation

Unscrupulous, predatory and loan-sharking recruiters in laborers’ home countries often work closely with contractors in Qatar to lure workers to the peninsula for extended periods of time under false pretenses. Upon arrival in the country, migrants are at the mercy of Qatar’s Kafala system of laws that govern the relationships between migrants, their employers and the Qatari state, placing economic migrants in a dangerous position of dependency. Under this structure of rules, the migrants’ visa and work permit status ties to a sponsor or employer which makes it illegal for workers to leave their employer or indeed the country itself without the employer’s official permission, creating a situation that is ripe for economic bondage and human trafficking in Qatar.

According to the U.S. State Department, workers suffer abuses such as:

  • Withheld Wages and Delayed Payment
  • Passport Confiscation
  • Abhorrent Company-Sponsored Living Conditions
  • Excessive Hours
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Hazardous Working Conditions
  • Debt Bondage
  • Prostitution
  • The Threat of Serious Physical Harm

Progress and Promises

There is hope, though. Facing mounting international pressure from democratic governments and NGOs such as the United Nations and Amnesty International, the Qatari government is making “significant promises of reform ahead of the 2022 World Cup” according to Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International’s deputy director of global issues. Such reforms include the establishment of a workers support and insurance fund, the announcement of a new minimum wage, dissolution of the laws necessitating employer permission for workers to leave the employer or the country, and a signed commitment to the International Labour Organization (ILO) to combat the brutal exploitation of workers and human trafficking in Qatar.

The Good News

Although the reforms on paper still lack the unwavering enforcement that is necessary to implement the new laws to their fullest extent, their creation signals a willingness of the Qatari government to meet certain labor standards ahead of the 2022 World Cup, which at this time should proceed as scheduled. The good news is that the country’s need to build and preserve its reputation at the center of its soft power initiatives allows for a motivated international community to demand immediate reforms and changes in labor laws and policies. In the context of growing calls to boycott the tournament if it does not meet standards and increasing international attention as the tournament nears, the Qatari government is likely to respond to sustained pressure if others apply it with strength and in numbers.

– Cem Gokhan
Photo: Wikipedia Commons