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Let's Talk About Qatar. But Let's Not Stop There.



Senior Fellow Jessamy Garver-Affeldt is currently doing research on migration in West and North Africa for the Mixed Migration Centre. Her December 12 article discusses Qatar and migration in light of the 2022 World Cup, but simultaneously brings attention to similarly problematic policies around the world. Below is the full text of the article, originally published on the Mixed Migration Centre website.

Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup 2022 has led to significant scrutiny of the situation of migrant workers in the country. The seven new stadiums alone were built by some 30,000 migrant workers, primarily from South Asia. But this is the tip of the iceberg. Qatar is completely dependent on migrant labor, which comprises around 95% of its total workforce – more than 2 million people in total, with around 1 million people employed in construction. According to the Gulf Times, in the run-up to the World Cup 1,791 km of roads, 207 bridges and 143 tunnels were built to link stadiums, cities and residential areas. This is in addition to 108 hotels, a metro system and a major airport expansion. The sheer amount of World Cup related infrastructure created from scratch in this tiny country is dizzying – more than 3,750 construction projects were completed in 2020 alone.

It seems fantastical to expect that this scale of creation could happen in the desert in little more than ten years without significant human costs, and it raises questions about what Fifa was thinking – and what Qatar was promising. Thus, scrutiny is welcome. It is commendable that journalists, commentators, activists and fans themselves are grappling with the moral conundrums raised by this World Cup (and, it should be noted, this World Cup is not the first to raise such conundrums). Any occasion to shed light on the vulnerabilities of and abuses faced by low-paid migrant workers and migrants in general should be welcomed. However, as we seek to be responsible consumers of this global spectacle, it is worth remembering that although it is right and good to shine a light on the abuses that have occurred in Qatar, we really can’t stop there. When it comes to countries taking problematic measures that dehumanize migrants, we are all throwing stones from glass houses.

So let’s talk about Qatar…

There has been a fair amount of debate about the number of migrant workers who have died while working on the World Cup. A much-cited figure reported by the Guardian puts the number of migrant deaths at 6,500 since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar.[1] The Qatari government rebuttal has been that between 2014 and 2020 only 37 workers died on stadium related projects, and only three of these deaths were due to workplace accidents.  This is also the figure that Fifa chooses to publicize. It is true that the Guardian’s figure does not distinguish between migrant workers whose deaths can be linked to work on World Cup projects and those who died from other causes, or who were working in other areas. However, the Qatari figure of 37 seems quite disingenuous given that stadiums account for only a small proportion of overall World Cup infrastructure development.

The UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) points out that the Qatari authorities are not accounting for deaths due to heart attack or respiratory failure, common consequences of heatstroke. Reporting from multiple news outlets has highlighted the disproportionate number of deaths among workers who are relatively young, again likely due to the physical strain of doing heavy labor in extreme heat. One needs only to read the harrowing personal stories of individuals who labored on Qatari infrastructure projects to get a sense of the terrible human costs. In addition to the loss of life and devastated families this leaves behind, the longer-term ill-effects of labor in such extreme conditions follow migrants back to their home countries, where they continue to suffer from grave health issues like kidney failure.

Ultimately, the ILO has assembled its own numbers on “World Cup related incidents” which are based on data from Qatari hospitals and ambulance services. According to these figures, in 2021 alone, 50 foreign workers died, 500 others were seriously injured and 37,600 suffered mild to moderate injuries. It should be noted that these figures come at a time when greater workplace safety reforms had been implemented, and therefore likely do not provide an accurate reflection of earlier years of the World Cup infrastructure campaign. And, midway through the tournament, the Secretary General of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy himself acknowledged a figure of between 400 to 500 deaths occurring as a result of World Cup related construction.

Morbidity and mortality shouldn’t be the sole measure of migrants’ situation in Qatar. There have been many other criticisms – terrible conditions in worker accommodations, the “indentured servitude” of the Kafala system, usurious fees charged by recruitment firms, harassment of female migrants – the list is a long one. The power imbalances that Qatar and its World Cup contractors have taken advantage of are stark.

The extent to which these circumstances have improved remains a topic of debate. In addition to limiting working hours in hot weather – a policy which seems to have had some positive effect in reducing heat related illness and death – Qatar has passed a raft of other reforms. These include efforts to make workers less dependent on authorization from their employer to change jobs and/or leave the country; introduction of a minimum wage and a government sponsored support fund to which workers can apply in cases of non-payment by their employer; and creation of an online complaint platform and new labor courts. According to the ILO, “these changes have already improved the working and living conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers, though additional efforts are needed to ensure that all workers can benefit.” At the same time, questions and criticisms remain, with advocates pointing to gaps in coverage and enforcement and a need for increased awareness of such provisions on the part of migrants themselves.

There is still a long way to go, the situation of migrant workers in Qatar remains precarious, and gains made now need to be maintained after international focus has turned away post World Cup. However, Qatar also shows that change and reform are possible, and that attention and pressure can make a difference.

…but let’s not stop there…

Pointing a finger at Qatar is easy – and at times feels as though it is being done too easily – missing or glossing over the fact that Qatar has made reforms. At the same time, many of us football fans come from countries whose governments implement policies which endanger migrants. The recently published Mixed Migration Review 2022 provides a stark reminder of just how common dangerous and inhumane policies and practices towards migrants are at this moment in time. In its section “Normalizing the Extreme,” two regions (the EU and the Gulf) and 46 countries across six continents are spotlighted for a variety of harsh and harmful policies and practices towards migrants.[2] There are clearly all too many examples to choose from, but even if we only look to a few of the other nations which competed in the World Cup, we see the following:

Since 2013 Australia has sent more than 3,000 asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and Nauru for “offshore processing.” There they are held in detention facilities for almost two years on average. According to Human Rights Watch, “the offshore processing policy has caused immeasurable suffering for thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers for nearly a decade.”

Following a resumption in diplomatic relations between Spain and Morocco which emphasized migration cooperation, Morocco has cracked down on migrants anew in 2022. It has carried out mass forced displacements and stepped up arrests and detention of migrants in areas known for onward migration towards Spain. In June Moroccan authorities violently pushed back around 2,000 people who rushed a border post seeking to enter the Spanish enclave of Melilla; 37 migrants were killed and scores more reported disappeared. Shortly thereafter the EU finalized a funding package for Morocco of some €500 million through 2027 to combat irregular migration.

In addition to the well-documented abuses of the kafala system in Saudi Arabia, mass arrests and deportations of migrants are common – and recently increasingly indiscriminate – and detention conditions are so appalling that Saudi authorities are reportedly seizing mobile phones and forcing some deportees to sign non-disclosure agreements so that they will not share their experiences. Allegations of abuse are rife, and migrants can be detained for months on end prior to deportation. There is no access to legal recourse or individual risk assessment, and recently Tigrayans deported back to Ethiopia are being arbitrarily detained by the Ethiopian government upon arrival.

According to Amnesty International, authorities in Poland have “systematically rounded up and violently pushed back people crossing from Belarus.” This practice pertains to people coming primarily from countries in the Middle East, elsewhere in Asia, and Africa (as opposed to Ukrainians), and has resulted in hundreds of people being stuck in the border area between Poland and Belarus, as well as subject to abuses such as physical and sexual violence at the hands of Belarussian security forces. Of those who manage to seek asylum in Poland, the majority – nearly 2,000 in 2021 – are automatically detained in conditions which are frequently overcrowded and unsanitary, with limited access to medical or legal support, and at times give rise to abuse such as strip searches or tasering.

As a variety of policies (Migrant Protection Protocols ie ‘Remain in Mexico’, Title 42) have made it increasingly difficult to enter the United States in recent years, migrants are being forced to use ever riskier routes. Deaths at the southern border have been steadily increasing, with 748 recorded in the first eleven months of 2022. At the same time, forcing people back into Mexico without support or protection has gravely endangered them; the NGO Human Rights First has tracked some 10,318 reports of murder, kidnapping, rape, torture and other violent attacks against people pushed back to Mexico as a result of just one policy – Title 42 – between January 2021 and June 2022. Additionally, these efforts to keep migrants and asylum-seekers out of the US have a knock-on effect, as according to Human Rights Watch: “Migrants and asylum seekers who enter Mexico through its southern border face abuses and struggle to obtain protection or legal status as a result of policies aimed at preventing them from reaching the US.”

…nor forget that governments can endanger migrants far beyond their own borders…

It is also important to remember that nation-states on their own are no longer the final frontier for making and enacting policies that hurt migrants. And, that such policies may be easy to overlook, as they can play out far from home – but they are no less dangerous for that. One striking example of this dynamic is the Central Mediterranean, where European policy plays an important role in endangering migrants. Seeking to choke off this route – through which significant numbers of refugees and migrants arrived in Italy prior to 2018 – the EU, with a particularly proactive approach by Italy, has ceded responsibility for maritime search and rescue (SAR) to the Libyan Coast Guard. As the EU and member states have stepped back from SAR operations, they have provided training and millions of euros of support to the Libyan Coast Guard.

This SAR vacuum has left NGOs – whose efforts have frequently been the subject of criminal prosecution at the hands of EU member states – trying to fill the gap. It has left vulnerable people adrift at sea for weeks at a time – even after having been rescued – as they are not allowed to disembark in a safe harbor. And it has proven deadly; IOM’s Missing Migrants Project has documented more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances in the Central Mediterranean since 2014, which is likely a substantial under-estimate. Underscoring the role Europe could and should be playing in this regard, UNHCR and IOM recently renewed calls for “lifesaving EU state-led SAR mechanisms.”

Effectively, this outsourcing of SAR to Libya has meant that migrants “rescued” at sea by the Libyan authorities are returned to Libya, where according to Médecins San Frontières (MSF), the vast majority end up in detention centers. The abuse that occurs in these centers has been well documented. According to the March 2022 report of a fact-finding mission of the UN Human Rights Council into the situation of migrants detained in Libya:

Its investigations reinforced the Mission’s belief that those imprisoned in Libya are commonly detained arbitrarily for prolonged periods; systematically tortured, raped or threatened with rape, including of female family members, and sometimes killed; routinely subjected to enforced disappearance; and subjected to extortion and inhumane conditions of detention, among other violations and abuses.

The Mission’s enquiry spanned official detention centers run by Libya’s Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) and informal centers run by local militias – which according to an IOM official quoted in the New Yorker have held tens of thousands of migrants since 2017. The UN Mission ultimately concluded that the abuses routinely occurring in the centers could amount to crimes against humanity.

We all need to do better.

It’s a difficult and complicated world – more so every day, it seems – and there are many demands on our attention and sympathy. Football fans are already grappling with a lot at a tournament where questions of human rights and geo-politics have been omni-present as never before at a World Cup. But perhaps we can see this moment as an opportunity; not to engage in whataboutism, but to realize that while it absolutely makes sense to call attention to abuses against migrants in Qatar, and to call for compensation for them and their families, there is more that we can do.

We can all take this as an opportunity to find out more about our own countries’ policies and practices when it comes to migration, and not allow them to be “out of sight, out of mind.” And for many of us, we have the power to directly impact this situation – in our own countries, on our own doorsteps or further afield – by the way we vote, advocate, and spend and contribute money. If we can come out of this World Cup not only condemning abuses against migrants in Qatar, but with a recognition that all countries have to do better – ours included – then that will be a real victory.

[1] This figure focused specifically on migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

[2] The categories covered in Normalizing the Extreme are: (1) rounding up, detaining and criminalizing migrants and refugees; (2) deaths and violence at borders; (3) the absence of sea rescue and normalizing migrant deaths at sea; (4) pushbacks on land and sea; (5) deportations, expulsions and refoulement; (6) discriminatory and inhumane treatment of migrants and refugees and state toleration and/or instigation of violations; and (7) extreme policy and politics.