Virus traps, sickens foreign labourers in Gulf Arab states

Published in Dawn on April 23, 2020

Long a lifeline for families back home, migrant workers in oil-rich Gulf Arab states now find themselves trapped by the coronavirus pandemic, losing jobs, running out of money and desperate to return to their home countries as Covid-19 stalks their labour camps.

Whether on the island of Bahrain, hidden in the industrial neighbourhoods behind Dubai’s skyscrapers or in landlocked cities of Saudi Arabia, a growing number of workers have contracted the virus or been forced into mass quarantines. Many have been put on unpaid leave or fired.

The United Arab Emirates is even threatening the labourers’ home countries that won’t take them back with possible quotas on workers in the future — something that would endanger a crucial source of remittances for South Asian countries.

Workers like Hunzullah Khaliqnoor, an Information Technology manager from Peshawar, who shares a room in Dubai with his two brothers, just wants to escape.

Khaliqnoor said he has been pleading daily with the Pakistani Consulate to fly him and one of his brothers out. “Our job is gone and we need to move.”

Pakistan has launched some return flights for its workers, but many residents are yet to return.

It’s a cruel fate for the millions of mostly South Asian migrants who left their homes. They’ve missed priceless years and family milestones for more lucrative wages in the Gulf.

Their work is essential for the region that hosts them and for their home countries. Their remittances are a lifeline for nations like Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Some 35 million labourers work in the six Arab Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon, according to United Nations figures.

Foreigners far outnumber locals in the Gulf states, accounting for over 80 per cent of the population in some countries.

Gulf states have increased coronavirus testing for residents and citizens alike. The UAE, for example, says 10,000 workers are being screened daily in Abu Dhabi’s industrial district.

Many of the migrants hold low-paying construction jobs, labouring in scorching heat to transform the region’s deserts into cities teeming with highways, skyscrapers, luxury hotels and marbled malls. Others work as cleaners, drivers, waiters and in jobs traditionally shunned by locals. Women often find jobs as nannies or maids.

The virus represents a new danger, especially in their living quarters.

Krishna Kumar, the head of the Abu Dhabi-based Kerala Social Centre, named after the Indian state from which many labourers come, said up to 10 workers share a room in some labour camps in the region.

In Bahrain and Qatar, hundreds of migrant workers were quarantined after an unknown number contracted Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Saudi Arabia also noted the danger of the virus spreading in housing for labourers. It’s a crisis striking Singapore as well.

Gulf countries have introduced amnesty periods for workers whose visas and residencies expire during the pandemic. Several have ordered firms to provide food and accommodation to migrant workers who’ve been furloughed, though labourers have been vulnerable to abuse for decades. Countries also have promised free treatment for any confirmed case of the virus, regardless of citizenship.

Access to health care, however, remains an issue. In Dubai’s industrial Al Quoz neighbourhood, an Associated Press journalist recently saw more than 20 people who were worried that they had the virus standing for hours in the rain outside a private clinic, waiting to be seen.

In a statement to the AP, clinic owner Aster DM Healthcare said it hadn’t “observed any unprecedented queues at any of our clinics” and followed “all measures of social distancing”.

In Dubai’s Naif neighbourhood, home to the famed Gold Souq, a man who gave his name as Bilal told the AP that he and his colleagues had been stuck in their office building because police closed the area off without warning as a weeks-long curfew came into effect. Dubai has since imposed a citywide 24-hour lockdown.

Qatar, the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, cordoned off parts of its Industrial area to prevent the spread of the disease. That’s left an undisclosed number of labourers reliant on government-distributed food and essentials.

Qatar’s government told the AP in a statement that any of the workers quarantined or ill will continue to be paid in full.

Across the Gulf, construction has been deemed essential and continued in spite of curfews and restrictions. Amnesty International researcher May Romanos said it’s unclear if workers can practice social distancing on buses, at construction sites and in their accommodations.

“These governments have the responsibility to make sure that workers are being protected,” she said.

Amnesty recently criticised Qatar for deporting migrant workers who thought they were being tested for the coronavirus, stripping them of their owed salary and end-of-service benefits. Qatar alleged the workers were illegally manufacturing and selling banned substances, something the men denied when speaking to Amnesty.

For those hoping to return home, flights are still largely grounded across the Gulf. Some nations refuse to accept returnees over concerns about controlling their own outbreaks.

Thousands of Filipino workers in the Mideast have returned home since February, while tens of thousands more may be repatriated in the next few months, Philippines’s Department of Foreign Affairs official Ed Menez told the AP.

However, India has no plan yet to evacuate its nationals from Gulf Arab countries, said an Indian Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorised to speak publicly on the matter. Nepal also has no plans to bring its citizens home.

Meanwhile, ambulances regularly can be seen in Dubai’s Al Quoz neighbourhood. Chukwuma Samuel of Nnewi, Nigeria, looked on nervously as an ambulance stopped near his home. Samuel lost his job as a kitchen assistant, but he isn’t yet ready to leave the Gulf because he sold everything for the chance to work in Dubai.

“Honestly, we are not safe,” he said, watching an ambulance attendant in a hazmat suit. “It’s only God that we have.”

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