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In These Times

Will the Arab Spring Leave Migrants Out in the Cold?

The uprisings of the "Arab Spring" have been by turns inspiring, frustrating and tragic for activists around the globe. And they are still horribly incomplete—not just because the emerging revolutions have been in many cases squelched by authoritarian regimes, but because the movements for freedom and justice have left out whole swaths of the affected populations. While citizens push for their rights and have broken into the foreground of the Western media, the throngs of migrants who fuel the regional economy continue to face their own struggles against abuse and impunity, mostly ignored inside and outside their adopted communities.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia executed eight Bangaldeshi migrant workers, convicted of killing of an Egyptian man. After the public beheadings, advocates globally denounced the trial (reportedly based on a violent workplace dispute in 2007) as a sham. Executions are up sharply in Saudi Arabia this year, reports Amnesty International, and 20 of the roughly 58 have involved immigrants.

An Indonesian maid met a similar fate in June, as did a Sudanese man last month (on allegations of witchcraft). The reports suggest that state violence against migrants shares the cruel mechanics of much more public government crackdowns on street demonstrations.

Calling for a moratorium on executions in Saudi Arabia, Amnesty notes that aside from the general barbarity of the practice, migrant defendants have no access to legal counsel or language translation, and “In many cases they are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them.”

So is the push for more democratic government in the Arab world going to change the plight of migrants, who in many ways have even fewer rights than citizens?

The criminal punishment of migrants is just one aspect of the degradation of foreign workers. Indonesian authorities just announced plans to repatriate several thousand migrant and undocumented workers deemed to be troublemakers by the Saudi government—that is, men and women “who ran away from their employers after being unpaid or suffering abuse,” according to the Jakarta Post.

Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke describes the ugly convergence of internal discrimination and international neglect in Jordan:

These women provide valuable domestic services that are in high demand. Yet they remain excluded from labor laws that provide basic protections—as basic as a weekly day of rest. And they are subject to an immigration sponsorship system that makes it difficult to escape abusive employers—escapes that the authorities sometimes treat as a crime.

Take the case of Marjorie L., a Filipina woman, whose employer made her work long hours for no pay and locked her inside the house before "loaning" Marjorie against her will to a friend across town for several months. She was not paid there either. She eventually escaped, but then faced detention by the authorities and was unable to return home.

While this system of coercive labor and outright slavery may have cultural underpinnings, it is no doubt reinforced by the perverse incentives of global capitalism and the asymmetries between political progress and economic “development.” Hence migrant issues seem even more acute in relatively “stable” countries like Jordan, where activism has been subdued amid promises of economic growth for some.


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In tiny Bahrain, where Washington’s military presence helps buttress a brutal regime, hundreds of thousands of mostly Asian and African migrants face two-fold oppression: the Bahrain Center for Human Right pointed out last December that horrific abuses of female domestic migrant workers have long gone unnoticed by civil society. The Arab Spring so far has done little to illuminate their struggles.

As with Jordan, although Bahrain has enacted some labor reforms, advocates say the protections have effectively left out household workers, as their employers routinely subject them to:

long (and often undefined) working hours, low salaries, the withholding of salaries and poor living conditions such as being forced to sleep outside or in cramped quarters and denied food. They suffer from psychological, physical and sexual abuse. In addition they are subjected to restrictions on movement, including the withholding of passports by their employers.

The situation in Libya, during and after the vicious NATO-backed civil war, takes the migration crisis to its logical extreme: the anti-Gaddafi rebel forces face numerous allegations of unjustly detaining and brutalizing dark-skinned African migrant workers and black Libyans, who are often suspected of being “mercenaries.” Meanwhile, as masses of Africans have fled in terror, the interim leaders have shown scant concern about the widespread reports of atrocities committed by rebel fighters against migrants and others caught in the conflict.

On the cusp of a one-year anniversary, the Arab Spring uprisings, despite their enormous promise, are at risk of ebbing toward a downward spiral—ongoing violence and oppression in Libya’s “transition,” the failure to dismantle Egypt's military impunity, the fatigue of relentless slaughter of protesters in Syria. It’s even less likely that the plight of migrants will be addressed as one of the many human rights dilemmas in the region.

Rima Kalush, editor of, part of a broader initiative known as, told In These Times that even where uprisings have dramatically strengthened pro-democracy people's movements, class and ethnic barriers surrounding migrants have remained intact:

At this point, it doesn't seem to be a major concern of the newly empowered citizens. However, we don't know if that's simply because they're currently focused on the broader picture of the government entity itself (rather than particular practices), or if it really is a matter of apathy to migrants' plight.

In countries that have seen less upheaval than Tunisia and Egypt, Kalush added, “it seems other Arab nations are making some popular concessions to avoid the wave of democratization surrounding them, but there's no incentive for them to address migrant rights when it's not an evident concern of their citizens.”

And so it goes around the world. The people pushed to new lands in search of work or refuge are universally deemed someone else’s problem. And even a revolution may not be enough to upend the global cycle of oppression.

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times,, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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