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UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants concludes country visit to Qatar

Doha (10 November 2013):


Following an invitation by the Government, I conducted a visit to Qatar from 3 to 10 November. During my 8-day visit, I met with Government representatives, representatives of the diplomatic community, the National Human Rights Committee, foundations, academics, as well as migrants themselves, including in labour camps, in the deportation centre, in the central prison, in shelters and in the streets.

I would like to express my great appreciation for the support and cooperation the Government provided in planning and coordinating the visit. I would also like to sincerely thank the United Nations Human Rights Training and Documentation Centre in Doha for their valuable support and assistance, both before and during my mission.

Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world. Approximately 88 per cent of the total population are “foreign workers”. They are employed largely in construction, services and domestic work. This high number of migrants poses unique challenges on the Qatari authorities and society. However, I would like to stress that the vast majority of migrants in Qatar are in the country at the government’s invitation, and they have received work permits in order to fill labour needs, which are largely created by Qatar’s booming economy, massive construction projects, and widespread reliance on domestic workers.

I warmly welcome information received from the government that they are looking into the ratification of United Nations treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as some International Labour Organization treaties.

I welcome positive legislative developments in Qatar, such as the provision in the 2009 sponsorship law which made it illegal for sponsors to confiscate passports. However, I note the need for effective enforcement of this law, as the practice seems to be still widespread.

The 2004 labour law, while it provides some important rights and safeguards for workers, still has limitations. It does not provide for a minimum wage, it bans migrants from forming organizations and from collective bargaining, and it excludes domestic workers. I was pleased to hear that the government has worked on a draft law for domestic workers, and I urge the speedy finalization and adoption of this law, in order to better safeguard the rights of domestic workers, whose abuse is rarely visible. A large number of migrant women who are working as domestic workers “run away” due to difficult working conditions and abuse, and end up in the deportation centre.

I welcome the blacklisting by the Government of companies that abuse migrant workers, but this should also apply to domestic workers. Persons who abuse domestic workers should not be able to hire more domestic workers in the future.

I welcome the ban on Qatari recruitment agencies from charging migrants recruitment fees. However, many of the migrants I met with had paid recruitment fees in their home countries in order to be able to travel to Qatar. I urge Qatari authorities to work together with countries of origin to ensure that migrants arrive in Qatar debt free. Additionally, several migrants reported having signed a contract in their home country which was simply replaced by a different contract upon arrival in Qatar, with a lower salary and often a different job description. I thus note the need to formalize the recruitment process, and strictly monitor the role of private recruitment agencies. In this respect, I am very grateful to the government for having organized a workshop during my visit to discuss these issues and ideas for future action. In particular, the idea of creating Qatari labour offices in sending states, which would, jointly with local authorities, conduct information campaigns, create ethical rating systems for local recruitment agencies and approve and register contracts, should be explored.

I urge Qatari authorities to include, in all their bilateral agreements with sending States, a uniform model contract for all workers, including domestic workers, which should ensure respect for and protection of the human rights of migrants, including labour rights and a minimum salary. Labour contracts based on such model should specify the job description, wages and labour conditions. E-government solutions could be developed to protect contracts against change upon arrival. In this respect, I urge the authorities to use the Qatar Foundation mandatory standards of migrant workers’ welfare as an inspiring model.

Many persons I met with, including government representatives, are of the opinion that the kafala sponsorship system, which is used to regulate the relationship between employers and migrant workers, with a work permit linked to a single employer, is problematic, and a source of abuse against migrants. While the 2009 sponsorship law allows for the transfer of sponsorship by the Ministry of Interior in the event of abuse by the employer, in practice this provision is applied in relatively few cases. I thus urge Qatar to thoroughly pursue its review of the kafala system. It should be made easy for migrants to change sponsor, and this should happen automatically in all cases of alleged abuse by the sponsor. The exit permit should be replaced by a system where creditors can apply to a court for a travel ban, that can only be awarded upon consideration of individualised circumstances, if strictly necessary for the adequate conclusion of judicial proceedings, with the burden of proof on the creditor. Migrants who “run away” from abusive employers should not be detained and deported. Ultimately, abolishing the kafala system and replacing it by a regulated open labour market, where the work permit allows the worker to change employer, will solve these issues, as well as ensure the mobility of labour and a better match of needs and skills.

Many migrants face human rights violations in the workplace. Some are not paid their wages, or are paid less than agreed. I am also concerned about the level of accidents in construction sites, and hazardous working conditions resulting in injury or death. In this respect, the workers’ voice should be heard on issues that are of common interest to the workers, the employers and the Government. The authorities should consider allowing the creation of health and safety committees where all workers would be represented. Ultimately, all workers should be allowed to form workers’ organizations. The authorities should not see this as a threat, but as an opportunity to use the workers’ voice to facilitate their own work, in the efficient management of mobile and competent labour market, where grievances can be dealt with early on and not when accidents happen or workers “run away”.

I welcome the different complaint mechanisms available for migrants, including in the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Interior and the National Human Rights Committee. However, migrants have difficult access to complaint mechanisms, partly because of lack of information, and partly because they fear losing their job and being subsequently detained and deported. More efforts are needed to provide effective access to justice.

I note the need for more effective employer sanctions, as well as more effective investigation and prosecution for offences by employers under the Labour Law. In this respect, I regret the low number of court cases against abusive employers.

I welcome information received that the number of labour inspectors will be doubled, from 150 to 300. I urge the authorities to ensure that these inspectors are properly trained; that they undertake thorough and regular inspections in all worksites; that they speak directly with the migrant workers; that they inspect their living quarters and labour camps; and that they be accompanied by interpreters in the languages understood by the workers.

The 2009 sponsorship law provides that the detention of migrants awaiting deportation may be ordered for thirty days, “renewable for several similar periods”, which may sometimes lead to long term administrative detention, in some cases as much as one year. Yet, the same law provides that the Minister may oblige migrants to reside in a specific area instead of resorting to detention, and I was also informed that reporting requirements are sometimes used as an alternative to detention. I urge the authorities to systematically rely on non-custodial measures rather than detention. As long as there is no risk of the migrant absconding from future proceedings, and they do not present a danger to themselves or others, detention is not necessary and thus a violation of their rights.

The majority of the women in the deportation centre had “run away” from abusive employers, particularly the domestic workers, and they wanted to return to their countries of origin. It is very unlikely that they present any risk of absconding, while they try to obtain passport, flight ticket and exit visa: their detention is not necessary and a violation of their rights. Accommodating such women in open shelters, instead of building a new ward for women at the deportation centre, would provide a much better and cheaper solution. Similarly, children should never find themselves in detention: migrant women with children should always be hosted in shelters.

I visited the shelters run by the Qatar Foundation for Combatting Human Trafficking and the Qatar Foundation for the Protection of Women and Children. I welcome the work of these foundations, and I urge the authorities to expand the capacity in such shelters.

While welcoming efforts undertaken by the authorities to ensure decent conditions for the migrants in the deportation centre, I found the centre to be overcrowded and unsanitary. Several migrants were sleeping on mattresses on the floor, in the corridors, and they lacked sheets, a change of clothes, soap and other hygienic products. Some of them had spent several months detained, and lacked information about their situation, not knowing what would happen to them. They were not allowed to keep their mobile phones, had difficult access to the outside world, and little knowledge about complaint mechanisms and how to challenge their detention.

In the central prison, there were several women who were sentenced to one year prison for “adultery” for having a baby while being unmarried. These women thus live in the prison with their babies, in conditions which are in clear violation of the principle of the best interests of the child, as stated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. While noting that these women have violated Qatari law, it is unnecessary to keep them and their babies in prison: I urge the authorities to find other solutions for these women, and allow those who wish to return to their home countries with their babies to do so quickly, with the help of their consular authorities.

I note as positive the visits to the deportation centre by the National Human Rights Committee and the Ministry of Interior’s Human Rights Department. However, I urge Qatar to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) and establish a National Preventive Mechanism to undertake regular unannounced visits to all places of deprivation of liberty in Qatar.

I welcome the commitment by the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee to ethical recruitment, and to developing employment standards in line with international human rights and labour standards, in order to ensure that workers’ rights will be respected in relation to the preparations of the World Cup. I hope the World Cup will be used as an opportunity for Qatar to enhance the effective respect, protection and fulfilment of the rights of migrant workers.

The National Human Rights Committee is a very important institution, able to enhance the protection of the human rights of migrants in Qatar. I urge the authorities to fully take into consideration the recommendations made by this Committee, including in its reports in relation to the human rights of migrants.

Finally, I note the need for Qatari authorities to undertake measures to create a more positive perception of migrants in Qatari society, stressing that migrants undertake important jobs in Qatar, are an essential part of Qatar’s economic success and deserve to see their dignity and rights protected on par with that of citizens.

Preliminary Recommendations to the Qatari government:

  • Effectively implement existing legislation, including by enforcing the prohibition against the confiscation of passports, prosecute violations and impose meaningful sanctions on companies and individuals who violate laws designed to protect migrants' rights.
  • Adopt legislation on domestic workers that include meaningful labour rights’ protection and effective compliance mechanisms.
  • Establish a minimum wage for all workers, including domestic workers.
  • Ensure that illegal recruitment fees are not charged, and that employment contracts signed in the sending countries are honoured and not altered in Qatar without the agreement of the migrant concerned. This could be achieved by adopting a uniform model contract with terms and conditions clearly stated, for all workers, regardless of their nationality, and ensuring they are properly informed on their rights in a language they understand.
  • Collect disaggregated data, inter alia, on complaints by migrant workers against their employers/sponsors, on labour standards violations, and on workplace accidents, injuries and illnesses.
  • Create a strong and effective labour inspection system, with more labour inspectors, who should be well trained on human rights standards, and interpreters in the most commonly used languages. Labour inspectors should monitor the enforcement of labour laws, including by interviewing the migrant workers, reviewing their contracts and making sure they are allowed to keep their passports, are issued IDs, and are paid on time.
  • Recognize the right of association and to self-organisation for all workers, including migrants.
  • Make it easier for migrants to change employers without sponsor/employer consent and abolish the exit visa requirement, which leads to a large number of migrants being stranded in Qatar for no apparent reason. Ultimately, abolish the kafala system and replace it by a regulated open labour market, where the work permit allows the worker to change employer.
  • Never detain individuals for the sole purpose of having “run away” from their employer, always explore alternatives to detention, never detain children, and establish more shelters.
  • Provide appropriate detention conditions, and ensure that all migrants deprived of their liberty have easy access to means of contacting their family, consular services and a lawyer, which should be free of charge if necessary, have access to an interpreter, and have the right to promptly challenge their detention.
  • Ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which would provide the Qatari government with a useful framework for managing migration while ensuring the full respect for the human rights of migrants.
  • Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • Ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and establish a National Preventive Mechanism with a mandate to undertake unannounced visits to all places where migrants are deprived of their liberty.
  • Consider seeking technical assistance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in order to make sure Qatari legislation and practice is in line with these treaties.
  • Ratify ILO Conventions, including on migrant workers (no 97 and 143), freedom of association, right to organize and collective bargaining (no 87 and 98), domestic workers (189) and private employment agencies (181), and consider seeking technical assistance from the International Labour Organization to ensure Qatari legislation and practice is in line with these Conventions.