Migrant Workers Caught in Whirlwind of “Arab Spring“

Cairo – Migrant workers caught in the crossfire of the ongoing upheavals in Bahrain and Libya highlight the need to develop international migration policies based on migrants' rights rather than the economic interest of labour sending and receiving countries, knowledgeable sources say.

“Unfortunately many labour sending countries did not put in place measures to properly care for their workers in every kind of situation like what is happening in Libya and Bahrain,” Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, regional coordinator of CARAM (Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility) Asia, told IPS.

“For those in Bahrain, there were human rights violations previously but most labour sending countries are only looking at the remittances and not the working and living conditions of their citizens,” Al Rashid added.

Since the Bahraini government ordered the crackdown on street protests, at least eight migrants have been killed and forty-nine wounded with the majority of the attacks targeting the Pakistani community.

Faraz Sanei, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch in Bahrain told IPS that although Indians represent the largest community in Bahrain with 350,000 migrants, Pakistanis are overwhelmingly visible in the riot police and are usually implicated in the deaths of protestors.

In addition, opposition groups calling for political and social reforms have long argued that the influx of Sunnis from outside in the last fifteen years is the government's attempt to change the religious demographics of Bahrain.

“Before the violence a lot of Bahrainis when dealing with riot police complained that they couldn't speak to them because they don't share the same language or have limited Arabic. Whenever there are investigations in villages there is this us versus them mentality because of this language barrier,” says Sanei.

However, in a move that could further spark sectarian tension, Bahrain's ruling family announced a recruitment drive from Pakistan to boost its security forces.

“The migrant worker issue is not the same as the Pakistani issue in that there are many Egyptians, Yemenis, Jordanians, Syrians and Pakistanis in the security and intelligence forces as well as the military that are naturalised so they are technically Bahraini citizens,” Sanei adds.

Many of the estimated twenty million migrant workers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are from poor countries whose leaders have long failed to put in place mechanisms to protect their nationals from abuse, inhumane working conditions, trafficking and a means of repatriation during times of crisis.

As the fate of nearly four hundred African migrants fleeing the turmoil in Libya on two boats heading towards Italy remains unknown, international aid organisations continue struggling to come up with the funds to help repatriate stranded migrants.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 140,000 foreign nationals have fled Libya via land borders. They include an estimated 69,000 Egyptians, who have crossed to the Egyptian border, and 75,000 Asians and Africans that have crossed into Tunisia, while 50,000 – of whom over 10,000 are Egyptian workers – remain stranded in Tunisia.

Jan De Wilde, coordinator at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) office in Tunisia, says that although evacuation mechanisms are usually the responsibility of the employers or labour sending countries, in situations like this the international community needs to step in and assist in evacuating third party nationals before matters get worse.

“Many have not been paid and are having a lot of difficulty getting food and medical care, and many of the Black Africans have been severely discriminated against,” said De Wilde in an interview with IPS.

Wilde added: “People are becoming very restless, impatient and fighting amongst themselves because one group thinks that another group is being favoured and they're becoming very difficult to manage. The situation is going to become worse once the summer arrives as the temperatures are already over twenty during the day and they'll be going up to fifty.”

According to De Wilde, there are massive amounts of migrants – mainly from Bangladesh, the Philippines, Egypt, West and sub-Saharan Africa – streaming out of Libya since mid-February at a rate of 1,000-3,000 per day.

But migrant workers being left stranded by their employers or their governments are not a new phenomenon in the Arab world. During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the 2006 summer war in Lebanon thousands of migrant workers were left to fend for themselves.

However, from an international humanitarian perspective, treaties like the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation could be one mechanism used by major bodies like the United Nations to call upon the international community to provide relief flights to assist those left out in the cold.

According to Standard 8.8 in Annex 8 of the Chicago Convention, contracting States are required to facilitate the entry into, departure from and transit through their territories of aircraft engaged in relief flights performed by or on behalf of international organisations recognised by the U.N. or by or on behalf of States themselves and to take all possible measures to ensure their safe operation.

“What the international community needs to do is to support the IOM to evacuate third country nationals in situations like this when their own countries can't help them,” adds De Wilde.