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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009)

Migrant Workers and Xenophobia in the Middle East

This paper analyses trends in migration to oil-rich and other labour-receiving countries in the Middle East. Patterns of migrant employment in the host countries will serve as indicators of the extent to which a “racialization” of particular occupational and industry sectors has developed. The paper will examine causes, patterns and cases of discriminatory or xenophobic practices by employers, civil society and the state. Formal redress mechanisms and non-state assistance will be examined to determine the extent to which local problems that migrants face can be, and are, addressed. Finally, policy suggestions are offered for improving relations between migrants and host communities, employers, recruitment agencies and governments.

The major influx of foreign workers into the Middle East began following the oil price boom in 1973, which resulted in an enormous surge of wealth for the Arab Gulf states (United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC). The Gulf countries were faced with grand development plans and the funds to pay for them, but with a totally inadequate workforce: the GCC countries had a combined workforce of only 1.36 million. Initially, both skilled and unskilled workers from other Arab countries (principally Egyptians, Yemenis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Sudanese) and from Asia (mainly Pakistanis and Indians) almost doubled the populations of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait within the decade between 1975 and 1985. By the early 1980s, an increasing number of migrants were recruited from Southeast Asia. Until the end of the 1980s, these comprised over half of the Asian migration to the Middle East.

In 1985, oil prices fell rapidly, prompting a cutback in infrastructure development in the Gulf states, and migration from Asia dropped by almost one-third. This fall was less severe because of the growth in employment in the service sector, which absorbed large numbers of workers, especially women from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. At the same time, the numbers of expatriate migrants from other Arab states were being reduced, as often for political reasons as for economic.

Unlike the Arab sending countries, Asian governments pursued active policies for overseas employment, partly to alleviate unemployment and partly to generate foreign income. Their labour force became a major export item that generated considerable earnings. For example, in 1999 total remittances to Sri Lanka from workers abroad totalled $1 billion, which constituted around 20 per cent of foreign goods imports for the previous year and more than the trade deficit of $0.7 billion.

As increasing numbers of “cheap” foreign workers from Asian and African countries have fulfilled the demand for unskilled workers, so the particular kinds of jobs found in the secondary labour markets have become racialized. That is, the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs become associated with foreign (Asian and African) workers to such a degree that nationals in these countries refuse to undertake them, despite high levels of poverty and unemployment.

This paper addresses, in particular, the peculiarities of temporary foreign contract labour in Middle Eastern receiving countries. It argues that temporary foreign workers are not formally “free” in receiving countries, because they cannot access the local labour markets in the receiving country without express permission from the state. In other words, temporary employees are normally legally attached to a sponsor/employer until the completion of an employment contract, at which time the employee is required to either receive a renewal of a work permit or leave the country. Temporary workers who do leave their employers/sponsors (or attempt to run away) are rendered illegal and are subject to arrest and deportation. Periodic “crackdowns” are undertaken to find and deport these illegal foreign residents. In most countries, many people in this category continue to live and work, although precise numbers are unknown.

Typically, temporary foreign contract employees are the preferred migrants to Middle Eastern countries, as there are no expectations of permanent settlement or citizenship rights. Most countries do not cover such employees under local labour laws, and no UN or ILO conventions that offer national or international protection are in force or ratified, particularly for unskilled labourers. However, despite the temporary nature of such labour contracts, there remains a permanent pool of migrant workers in the receiving countries. Depending upon the numbers, ethnic community development often results.

Particular focus is given to the racist dimensions of the treatment of Asian domestic workers in the Middle East. Asian female live-in domestic workers in Lebanon live under conditions that have been likened to slavery. The structural arrangements, including the threat of violence, restriction of movement and exploitative employment conditions, have led to significantly widespread abuse of these women, who constitute a particularly vulnerable group. The study of domestic employees is significant because they comprise the bulk of foreign workers from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Similar conditions and treatment may be found in other Middle Eastern countries.

In the case of Lebanon, the presence of Syrian workers—who are largely undocumented, but continue to work freely because of the Syrian political and military presence in the country—has an added political dimension. Further, Palestinian refugees, who, since 1948 have been treated formally as foreigners, have been prevented from working in various occupations and professions because (i) granting citizenship rights and naturalization is seen as contrary to the legitimate demands of rights of return to Palestine, and (ii) the assimilation of Palestinians would mean a large influx of Sunni Muslims, which would undermine the so-called sensitive demographic “balance” of the population.

The xenophobic dimension has three aspects. First, it is evident in the preference of temporary contract labour that excludes possibilities of citizenship. Second, preferential treatment is usually given to nationals, although particular kinds of menial work have now been “allocated” to foreigners. Third, the attitude of disdain toward those who are visibly different (particularly Asians) is observed in public places such as supermarkets, airports and government offices.

While a number of suggestions are made with regard to formal redress mechanisms to alleviate or eliminate forms of racism and slavery in Middle Eastern countries, it will also be noted that such reforms may affect the labour market in terms of the demand for foreign workers. If this is the case, governments of both receiving and sending countries may not be sufficiently supportive of serious reform.

Ray Jureidini is associate professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 31 Dec 2003
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8194
    From: UNRISD/UN Publications