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The New Arab

Gulf countries slammed for 'reckless' mass deportations of migrant workers

A migrant worker cleans a mall in Dubai [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 April, 2020

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Saudi Arabia and UAE are repatriating thousands of foreign workers despite their home nations not being able to sufficiently quarantine them, risking a dangerous spread of Covid-19.
Advocates for migrant and workers' rights have spoken out against mass repatriation programmes for migrant labourers - including those with Covid-19 symptoms - being carried out by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly deported 2,968 Ethiopian migrants in the first 10 days of April, despite the country's makeshift quarantine facilities for returnees - including those testing positive for the virus - becoming dangerously overcrowded.

Saudi Arabia says the repatriations are only for those who want to leave, but Ethiopia has asked the Gulf kingdom to stop the deportations.

"This is simply not the moment for mass deportations from a public health perspective," Catherine Sozi, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Ethiopia told the Financial Times.

Read also: Comment: As coronavirus hits the Gulf don't forget about migrant workers

"These mass deportations, without any pre-departure medical screening are likely to exacerbate the spread of Covid-19 to the region and beyond," she added.

Meanwhile, the UAE threatened to review labour ties with countries refusing to take back their citizens, including those who had lost jobs or been put on leave. 

It said it was also considering imposing stringent quotas on work visas for nationals of states that did not comply with the repatriation programme.

India said it would not be able to repatriate thousands of workers while ensuring the lockdown conditions, while Pakistan said it would take back its expats once it had sorted sufficient facilities in which they could quarantine upon their return.

Coronavirus has spread among the Gulf's large population of low-wage foreign labourers, many of whom live in overcrowded shared accommodation. 

Their residence in the Gulf states is dependent on their work visa, which employers can revoke with short notice.

Bahrain said 45 out of 47 new cases reported on Sunday were foreign workers.

Millions of migrant workers, mainly from south Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Phillipines, live in the Gulf for work.

Foreign nationals account for about a third of Saudi Arabia's 30m population, while around 90 percent of the Emirates' 9 million people are foreign born.

As a result of the exploitative work permit system, also known as "kafala", Gulf countries have historically been able to deport large numbers of their workers in times of economic downturn.

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