Rights groups say host countries should offer foreign workers same protections as citizens
Crammed into work camps, stood down from their jobs, facing high rates of infection and with no way home, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East, migrant advocates and diplomats say.
Such workers risk of exposure to Covid-19 is so high, rights groups say, that host countries need to offer the same protections granted to their citizens or face the threat of a rampant outbreak that proves ever more difficult to contain.
Concern is focused on the wealthy Gulf states, where migrant labour makes up half or more of the population. Gas- and oil-fuelled economies have lured millions of low-skilled workers from south and south-east Asia and Africa over recent decades.
Construction workers are now mostly confined to dormitories, far from the skylines and stadiums they had been building, and stripped of their incomes. The same applies in the retail and energy sectors, staffed almost exclusively by foreign labour.
The problem is in the dormitories, as social distancing can be organised in the dining areas, said Ryszard Cholewiski, a senior migration specialist with the International Labour Organisation. There have been attempts by a number of companies to sort out sleeping arrangements, but even on a good day in some of these facilities, people are four to a room.
Across the Gulf states, migrant workers account for high proportions of Covid-19 infections. In Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain, official figures suggest nearly all cases have been among foreigners, many of whom live in labour camps.
A report released by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre this month noted that migrant workers in the Gulf live in tightly packed labour camps, often in unsanitary conditions, some without access to running water.
These conditions provide the perfect conditions for the spread of Covid-19. Quarantines and other movement and travel restrictions may inadvertently raise the risk to workers, as well as result in workers suffering severe economic consequences from being unable to work, the report said.
The rate of infection among migrants has shaken Gulf states, which mindful of the reaction of their citizens have stepped up efforts to repatriate large numbers of workers, often meeting little response from home countries.