Qatar passed two laws recently that allow for the granting of asylum and also end a system of abusive "exit permits" that kept migrants in modern-day servitude. Amnesty International praised Qatar for "partially scrapping" a law that "prevented migrant workers from leaving the country without their employer's permission."
According to reports Law No. 13 of 2018, signed by the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Tuesday, prevents employers from banning migrant workers from leaving the emirate. The law doesn't prevent all the abuses that migrants and domestic workers are subjected to. According to Amnesty International "other employees such as domestic workers who fall outside of the Labor Law are not covered by the reform." In recent years migrant workers have made up more than 1.9 million of the 2.6 million people in Qatar. There are 174,000 domestic workers.
Qatar has faced pressure since 2016 to change its kafala system of employment where workers cannot change employers or leave the country without their employer's permission. In 2016, The Guardian reported that the International Labour Organization had given Qatar "12 months to end migrant worker slavery or face a possible United Nations investigation." The ILO had investigated forced labor in Qatar and met workers who said they "had no access to free healthcare and were in deep debt." It was found not to "satisfy by far the minimum standards, with most accommodation housing 10 to 12 workers per small room."
The system was compared to "modern-day slavery" in 2017 by Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Doha received increased focus because it is hosting the World Cup from November 21 to December 18, 2022, and migrant workers are building the stadiums and infrastructure for the games.
Qatar's decision has been praised, but a closer look at the reforms reveals how small they are. Despite claims that the Persian Gulf emirate will now grant permanent resident status to some foreigners who had lived in the country for many years, the decree "allows a maximum of 100 expatriates permanent residency in Qatar," according to Middle East Eye.
Qatar also passed a law that would allow for granting of asylum to those fleeing persecution. For decades the wealthiest Gulf countries, including Qatar, have not provided asylum to refugees. For instance, according to the UNHCR 2003 handbook, Qatar had only received six refugees in 1999 and 46 by 2003. Only 50 people had been able to request asylum. Qatar claimed that there were only 177 refugees in the country in 2016 and 142 asylum seeker applications pending, of which 62 received asylum.
Tiny Luxembourg, which has a similar number of citizens as Qatar, had 2,213 pending cases of asylum seekers and 2,046 refugees, of which 774 received protection. Saudi Arabia, with a much larger population, gave only 19 people protected status the same year. Qatar's own media powerhouse Al-Jazeera often highlights the plight of refugees abroad. On September 5 it ran an article claiming that South Korea's reticence to give asylum to more than 500 Yemenites was "driven largely by Islamophobia." Yet Yemenites seeking asylum in Qatar face more hurdles than in South Korea.
The changes to the labor and asylum laws in Qatar received praise and criticism on social media. Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, tweeted that headlines praising the change "makes a mockery of human rights. Applauding Qatar for allowing workers to leave with exit visa by employers?!" But Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, praised Qatar for passing the "region's first asylum law" which she said brings "real security for political exiles in (the) region." It could be a model for the rest of the Gulf. "A very big deal."
But Jaber Alsiwat, a civil engineer, wondered whether Qatar would not give asylum to its own people who lost citizenship over the last few years for political reasons. "Perhaps they can give asylum to hundreds of Qataris who were stripped of citizenship."
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.