Sick, stranded and broke: The COVID-19 crisis is hitting Gulf migrant workers


When all nine men contracted the coronavirus in his dormitory, Nurudhin, 27, was transported to a remote quarantine camp – and became one of many migrant workers struggling to house the Gulf States.

The oil-rich Gulf depends on the cheap labor of millions of foreigners – mainly from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – many of whom live in filthy camps, far from the region’s gaudy skyscrapers and shopping centers.

But the spread of the coronavirus, along with the shrinking oil-driven economies, has made many workers sick, and countless others unemployed, unpaid, and handed over to unscrupulous employers.

“There is nothing in my room except a small bed. I have to share a bathroom with 20 to 30 people, ”said Nurudhin, an Indian draftsman who was hospitalized before being taken to a remote worker isolation facility in the United Arab Emirates.

“There is no Wi-Fi. Not even a television. But the situation in my room was even worse, “he said of his crowded quarters in Abu Dhabi, proving fertile ground for the disease.

Despite weeks of strict curfew, the Gulf states with the largest population of foreign workers – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar – are still reporting a growing number of coronavirus cases.

Riyadh says foreigners account for 70 to 80 percent of recently discovered cases.

To try to reduce transmission, the Gulf authorities have moved workers from camps to temporary residences, establishing mass screening centers and using drones in some neighborhoods to warn people of meeting.


The UAE is the most vocal among the Gulf states in demanding repatriation of government workers, many of whom have been fired or left unpaid when business ended and oil prices plummeted.

On April 20, about 22,900 foreigners were repatriated on 127 flights from otherwise closed airports, officials said.

But India, which has 3.2 million residents in the UAE alone, declined to cooperate, saying that repatriating and quarantining millions of returning civilians would be a logistical and security nightmare.

Bangladesh has reluctantly agreed to take back thousands of its citizens to avoid penalties from the Gulf States in the future, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said.

“If we don’t bring them home … they won’t recruit people from us as soon as their situation improves,” he told AFP, adding that thousands of undocumented workers and hundreds of prisoners are being flown back, including an airplane load from Saudi Arabia last week.

Pakistan has allowed repatriation, but warned that it is hampered by the lack of testing and quarantine facilities at its airports.

Dubai diplomats appealed to Pakistanis not to go to the consulate after a large number – desperate to return home – gathered to demand seats on limited special flights.

“We are concerned about our brothers in the Gulf. The closing and closing of day-to-day operations in the Gulf have left many Pakistanis abroad with no income,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said last week.

A UAE spokesperson said it owed migrant workers “gratitude” and that it provided health, food and housing care and relaxed immigration rules for those with expired visas.


The pandemic has highlighted the problem of migrant workers living and working in conditions that make them vulnerable to disease, said Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Gulf states’ attempts to curb the virus caused further hardships, with closures causing workers to run out of food and water shortages, she told AFP, adding that charities were overwhelmed.

“Workers who still have to work are put on buses where they cannot take social distance, and are sent to locations where social distance is not practiced or where protective equipment and sanitation are not adequately provided,” she said.

Millions of migrant workers face future uncertainty as the now unwanted workforce is negotiated by their governments and host countries.

“I want to go back to my country … I have no money and I don’t want to spend more time here,” said an Egyptian man in Kuwait City who is being held in a camp for immigration offenses.

Javed Paresh, a construction worker in the emirate of Sharjah, is one of tens of thousands of Pakistanis who have signed up to fly home.

“I haven’t been paid in the past six months. I just want to go home to see my family. My family will starve because I can’t send them money for months, ”he said.

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