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When will we treat migrant workers like human beings?

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

Behind the high-rise shiny buildings that decorate the skylines of Gulf countries are the perils of the migrant workers who separated from their families and lives to build them. Behind each migrant worker is a story of what pushed them out of their countries, and what makes them put up with the disrespect and humiliation faced on a daily basis.

With the proportion of expatriates in Gulf countries ranging from 20 percent in Oman to as high as 85 percent in Qatar, the least that is expected of governments is to accommodate their needs and respect their basic human rights.

However, putting aside the limited access to healthcare and education, and the absence of a clearly set minimum wage, police disrespect toward foreign workers is an issue that needs to be immediately addressed.

Police and the Nazi salute

It is typical and expected of Kuwaiti police to showcase their accomplishments of catching drug and alcohol distributers by publishing photos in local newspapers. However, in one recent arrest, the accused were photographed giving the Nazi salute, with toothbrush moustaches (similar to Hitler’s moustache), shaved. In front of them were barrels of alcohol.

Police disrespect toward foreign workers is an issue that needs to be immediately addressed

Yara al-Wazir

The photographs appear to have been taken at Hawali police station, a district infamous for its drug and alcohol networks. The images, which could not be verified, were passed around through text messaging in early October, and show police officers in uniform making funny faces and posing with the accused, who are visibly distraught.

The photos depict the harsh reality of the situation of migrant workers in the Gulf. Yes, they participated in illegal activities and should be reprimanded for their actions. However, the treatment they endured is unacceptable, and shows the need for police discipline in Kuwait, and the government’s failure to respect its residents

Tip of the iceberg

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of migrant workers and expats are mistreated on a daily basis. From domestic workers who flee their jobs after working inexplicable hours only to be returned to their employers until their contract expires, to education systems and schools that are exclusive to citizens and not residents, expats have seen it all.

If a government wants to spoil its citizens, then so be it - it is its right to do so. However, it cannot be done at the expense of the expats and migrant workers who help build the country and strengthened it to the point where it can stand on its own two feet. The least that can be expected is respecting basic human rights.

Civil society

In Kuwait, civil society has responded. At only 18 years old, Faisal al-Fuhaid set up Equait, an NGO to fight inequality in his home country. Only two years into its operations, Equait has managed to tackle social norms from the bottom up, primarily addressing young people through talks and think-tank-style sessions.

With time, such NGOs will test whether or not change comes from within. However, until civil society and government being to work together to set clear rules to protect the expat population, we cannot move forward.

There is a habit of letting people into our homes then abandoning them - from refugees to domestic workers. Instead of spending on foreign aid, we need to focus on local assistance for the same people who flee the countries we send aid to.

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Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.