Is it worth the risk? African migrant workers in the Middle East

<div class="at-above-post addthis_tool" data-url=""></div>The case of African migrant workers in the Middle East is one that has attracted mixed reactions. While the West has consistently seen this as modern...
©SCEME website

The case of African migrant workers in the Middle East is one that has attracted mixed reactions. While the West has consistently seen this as modern slavery, Africans view the job openings in the Middle East as an opportunity to solve the unemployment crisis in the African continent. However, all have been awed by the shocking revelation by the media on the cruelty that is meted on the African migrant workers in the Middle East. The begging question is, “Do African migrant workers sacrifice their human rights at the prospect of well-paying job opportunities?”

Human rights violation cases:

Many African migrant workers in the Middle East will tell you that human rights are only a mirage to them. The moment these vulnerable group workers leave their homelands in quest of greener pastures in the Middle East, the only good thing they can hope for is better pay. Sadly, a sizable portion never gets to enjoy even the anticipated good pay. According to one Ethiopian woman working conditions are terrible, she had to sleep with chickens, went for days without food and was often sexually molested by her employer. Another Ethiopian traveled to Saudi Arabia to work as a household only to end dead under mysterious circumstances. The awe-stricken parents had to plead with the government to help transport the body home. Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia also engaged in demonstration to protest against poor work conditions and humiliating treatments. Sadly the demo ended with three of them dead.


Migrant workers on a building site in Dubai ©Author/WN

Is it worth the risk?

Many have asked whether lack of jobs in the Middle East is enough reason to expose oneself to all forms of human rights abuses. According to, over 30 attempted suicide/suicide cases were reported amongst African Migrant domestic workers. Most of the suicides were unexplained and sadly, no serious investigations are usually carried out to clarify the causes, that are believed to be linked to undesirable employment conditions. In Qatar, Amnesty International reported that Migrant domestic workers are powerless and face widespread abuse. As a matter of fact, Human Rights groups have consistently called on Middle Eastern countries to extend labor protections to cover the migrant household servants.

Multiple interviews have featured African migrant workers describing horrific tales of the work conditions they have had to endure. Their story is one of low wages, non-stop work, no holidays, no breaks, inadequate sleeping hours, and being subjected to violence and humiliation at their employers’ hands. In essence, the work conditions are very harsh and in total disregard of basic human rights.

Gender based violence:

It is well known that women are often victims of abuse and humiliation, and it is no different in this case. Reportedly, women are beaten up, pulled by the hair, and in some instance, pushed down the stairs. It is no surprise when women that have sought employment in the Middle East are featured with knife scars and burns from iron boxes. However, the worst form of human rights violation that women have to undergo in the Middle East is sexual molestation. Sadly, rapes are often common within African women migrant workers and they have no means of seeking legal redress. Charges are rarely pressed against the rapists due to victims’ fears that they could end up being considered the offenders. As a matter of fact, women that report rape incidences are often accused of behaving in a lewd way.

The Consequences:

Most African embassies and many NGOs admit to receiving many complaints from the migrants.

The agencies that recruit African migrant workers reportedly lie to them about the kind of lifestyle they are to expect in the Middle East. This is aggravated by the fact that the contracts are written in Arabic and hence the migrants are unable to read them. As a result, the migrants are subject to constrained freedom of movement due to the fact that they are legally tied to their ‘sponsors’. The sponsor laws in these countries indirectly enslave them to their employers, for instance, domestic workers are not allowed to change jobs or vacate the country without their sponsor’s permission. Any such attempts necessitate prosecution of the migrants.

The future:

With little being done to improve the condition of migrant workers in the Middle East, things are not expected to change any time soon. Sadly, migrant workers from the poorer African countries are driven by desperation and end up exposing themselves to serious cases of human rights violations. This desperation has made it even more difficult to keep track of migrant workers and hence watch out on their welfare. Some reportedly travel to their Middle Eastern, destinations without the knowledge of their governments only to come to fore when subjected to inhumane treatments.

This has made it more difficult to reduce cases of human rights violation. To avoid this, in some African countries governments are working to implement laws that make sure that all people recruited by agents have their contracts reviewed by the ministry. Nonetheless, this has not yet come to fruition. Malicious agents and desperate people seeking employment still find ways to circumvent these regulations leaving the migrant workers unprotected.

Migrants protesting in Lebanon ©SCEME website

Migrants protesting in Lebanon
©SCEME website


It is time that governments directly engage Middle Eastern governments to increase controls to protect and respect the rights of migrant workers. Further commitment from the destination countries is a must if the rights of the migrants are to be secured. African countries must also sensitize their citizens on the risks of avoiding aid down procedures. These solutions would at least begin to curb human rights violations against African migrants in the Middle East, and assure that these people are respected.

Human Rights
Mehari Fisseha

Mehari has PhD in Social Policy and Social Work, Masters in Government and Public Policy. Mehari has been an advocate for refugees and asylum seekers in Ireland. Mehari is a passionate champion on Human Rights and Development issues, with a focus in Ethiopia and Eritrea. He is also interested in the reform of the United Nations. His academic work is driven by his commitment to empowerment and ‘betterment’ of the powerless (people, communities), often invisible in the eyes of policy makers, that policies ignore their very ‘realities’. Mehari is a recipient of European Academy of Diplomacy award for the best candidate in the European diplomacy and Foreign policy workshop.
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    Why People Keep Moving to Become Cheap Labor
    11 November 2015 at 3:11 pm
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    […] has contributed to the increase in migration in the last years, and presents a main culprit to the human rights abuses that these people face when exploited by big […]

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