Coronavirus: Kuwaitis call on govt to crack down on visa merchants amid lockdown

Expatriates wait for mandatory coronavirus testing in a makeshift testing centre in Mishref, Kuwait, March 14, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

Kuwaiti social media users and politicians have called on the government to crack down on illegal visa merchants amid a lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus across the country.

Visa merchants can make thousands of dollars by providing a visa to just one immigrant, but the trade is illegal because only people with jobs are meant to receive visas and the influx of job seekers creates an underclass of unemployed immigrants who live in the shadows of the formal economy.

Upon arrival, immigrants who buy visas illegally are obliged to pay their sponsor a monthly or yearly fee to continue to sponsor them. They often struggle to find marginal employment and are unable to pay their sponsor’s fees, leading to them being prohibited from leaving the country until a penalty is paid.

The government announced on March 30 that it would send home any expatriates who had violated their visas and wanted to be repatriated, without requiring them to pay administration fees or air fares. So far, 600 migrants, including 253 Filipino nationals, have been repatriated under the scheme, according to state news agency KUNA.

Social media users rallied around a campaign on Twitter using the Arabic hashtag “punish visa merchants” to urge the government to take action.

“What we are witnessing today is a result of accumulation of residency dealers who have continued for more than two decades without accountability,” the spokesperson for the Kuwait Liberal Movement Abdulaziz al-Ahmed said on Twitter.

“After the residency merchant abandons his responsibility, the worker tries to find illegal work in search of a living, resulting in the miserable situation that exists in some areas,” he added.

Kuwait has confirmed 743 cases of coronavirus infection as of Tuesday. Infections have been concentrated in low-income residential camps, where migrant workers live in densely packed living quarters.

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“My fellow citizens, anyone who knows a residency merchant should report him even if he is a family member. The money they earn from human trafficking is prohibited, and by covering up for them you are participating with them in the oppression of people and the destruction of Kuwait,” one Twitter user wrote.

A Member of Parliament calls for action

“Today, the real problem is not the resident,” Kuwaiti parliamentarian Omar al-Tabtabai said while speaking to members of the press on Monday.

“It is the person who brought the resident, and manipulated the resident, and let him live on the streets, and takes money from him, every month, every year,” he added.

Al-Tabtabai called on Kuwait’s Council of Ministers to hold merchants accountable and praised the social media campaign that is shedding light on the plight of illegal migrants in the country.

He added that members of parliament presented a proposal to consider imposing a punishment on residency merchants, which will ensure that expatriates - who currently make up 70 percent of the country’s population – looking for job opportunities in the country can remain in Kuwait legally.

The campaign against visa merchants follows controversial comments by a famous Kuwaiti actress, Hayat al-Fahad, who called for the expulsion of all expatriates from the country on national television to make room for citizens who might get infected with coronavirus.

Two thirds of the population of Kuwait are expatriate.

The 71-year-old actress, who is known across the region for starring in TV dramas, said migrants in the country should leave because there will be “no hospitals” for Kuwaitis who may get the virus.

“Why, if their countries do not want them, should we deal with them? Aren’t people supposed to leave during crises?” she said.

“We should send them out... put them in the desert. I am not against humanity, but we have reached a stage where we’re fed up,” al-Fahad added.

The actress was criticized by several Twitter users, saying she lacked humanity.

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