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Coronavirus: GCC urged to free detained migrants and activists

Human Rights Watch calls on Gulf countries to release non-violent detainees as virus death toll rises in the Middle East
Migrant workers cross a pedestrian bridge in Dubai as they head to work (AFP)

Human rights activists have urged Gulf countries to free detained migrant workers to help contain the spread of coronavirus in the region. 

Thousands of expatriate workers have been detained in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — for violating strict residency regulations, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

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Overcrowding is a serious and recurring problem in many of the Gulf states' prisons and detention centres, making it “virtually impossible” to put into effect basic measures to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak, the non-governmental organisation said.

“Many migrant workers in the Gulf, especially those who are undocumented through no fault of their own or have fled unscrupulous employers, are in prolonged pre-deportation detention in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions,” Michael Page, HRW’s deputy Middle East director, said in a statement published on Tuesday.

“As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Gulf states should take prompt measures to protect the health and rights of detainees and staff in immigration detention centers, including by releasing people and finding alternatives to detention,” he added.

Almost half of the GCC population of 52 million are expatriates, most of whom come from South Asia, the Philippines or within the Arab world. 

Many are brought to the region under a sponsorship system called kafala, which links the legal status of migrants to their employers throughout their stay in the country. The kafala system bans employees from switching jobs without the permission of their employers, leaving them vulnerable to abuse. 

Indefinite Stay

As more countries close borders and impose travel restrictions due to the pandemic, Gulf governments should consider extending visas to ensure that migrant workers retain their legal residency at a time when they cannot travel home freely, HRW said.

Several GCC countries have taken steps to address the concerns over the welfare of migrants. 

In March, Saudi Arabia released 250 foreign detainees held on non-violent immigration and residency offences, and the UAE promised to automatically issue and renew the work permits and residency visas of migrant workers without the need for medical exams.

Last week, Kuwait offered expat workers living illegally in the country a one-month amnesty to leave, with a free air ticket and without paying delay fines. Some 150,000 people are expected to benefit from the offer.

The country also announced that it would treat all Covid-19 patients, including non-Kuwaitis, who account for nearly 70 percent of the population, for free.

Release peaceful activists

In a separate statement released on Monday, HRW and other rights groups called on Bahrain to release human rights and political activists imprisoned "solely for peacefully exercising their rights."

The coalition of 19 activist groups said the conditions in Bahrain's overcrowded prisons - as well as the lack of medical care - would compound the risk of Covid-19 spreading.

Last month, Bahrain freed 901 prisoners on "humanitarian grounds" and 585 others were given non-custodial sentences.

The GCC states have reported an uptick in coronavirus cases since 1 April, with Saudi Arabia being the worst hit with 41 deaths.

So far, the oil-rich federation has reported a total of around 8,400 coronavirus cases and 60 deaths. A majority of the cases in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among foreigners.

Globally, coronavirus has infected over 1.3 million people and killed more than 72,000, according to data released by Johns Hopkins University.