Three Bangladeshi workers died in a fire in Bahrain last Friday, bringing the number of Bangladeshi migrants who have died due to unsafe working conditions to 26 in the past two years. This is a small fragment of the hundreds of migrant workers who have been killed in the Gulf’s unsafe work camps and segregated apartments, including 500 Indian worker deaths in Qatar since 2012.
Despite these rampant violations, local rights groups are increasingly criticized for their neglect of migrant rights as a prevalent and persistent problem in their region. Although the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has developed a substantial series of articles and reports specifically addressing migrant workers, the issue is largely dealt with as a separate, somehow extraneous set of abuses, independent from those more widely known to be perpetrated by oppressive Gulf governments.
When I asked Maryam Al Khawaja, president of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, about the particular challenges in investigating and reporting abuse against migrants in the Gulf, she explained that while the group did publish a report on Gulf migrant abuse in January 2013, fear of retribution makes victims wary of speaking with local, well known human rights activists. In a region renowned for suppressing dissent and imprisoning its outspoken activists, many migrants fear being found “guilty by association.”
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and currently imprisoned for “inciting illegal rallies and marches,” was an outspoken advocate for the rights of migrant workers in the Gulf. Rajab wrote a report on migrant workers and the death penalty in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in 2010, spoke on the topic at the United Nations in Gevena, and served on the board of CARAM Asia, a Malaysia-based NGO which defends the rights of migrant workers. In response to a 2007 decision by the Bahraini parliament to ban unmarried migrant workers from living in residential areas, Rajab stated:
It is appalling that Bahrain is willing to rest on the benefits of these people’s hard work, and often their suffering, but that they refuse to live with them in equality and dignity. The solution is not to force migrant workers into ghettos, but to urge companies to improve living conditions for workers – and not to accommodate large numbers of workers in inadequate space, and to improve the standard of living for them.
Rajab founded one of the first migrant workers protection groups in the GCC, and his continued detention is a disservice to migrant workers in Bahrain as much as it is to the oppressed Bahraini people. Indeed, when a travel ban was placed on Rajab in 2010, CARAM wrote to the government of Bahrain:
We are urging you to allow the Chair Person of CARAM Asia, Mr. Nabeel Rajab, who is also the President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) to travel internationally. We are also writing to express our grave concerned about the unfounded media accusations against Nabeel that linked him to a “terrorist network”. … Nabeel Rajab was democratically elected last year by our membership of independent NGOs and CBOs from Asia as Chair of the organisation. As Chair of our regional network, he has to travel often to ensure the smooth operation of the network.
Although the detention of activists can, of course, not account entirely for the large scale exclusion of migrant rights from mainstream human rights activism, it certainly doesn’t help. Do more activists in the Gulf need to actively and openly take up the migrant cause? Yes. Do migrant workers want to speak to an activist that has a history of travel bans and tortured imprisonment under the regime that employs them? Probably not.
When Gulf governments detain peaceful activists, they create a culture of fear that prevents not only their own citizens from reporting violations, but their large populations of migrant workers as well. As working conditions for migrants continue to deteriorate in the Gulf, the imprisonment and targeting of activists further silences these violations against migrants.