Kuwait’s Escalating Campaign against Its Expat Workers

In recent months, tensions in Kuwait surrounding the country’s demographic composition have been on the rise. Like all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, a significant percentage of Kuwait’s population is comprised of foreign nationals who have traveled to the country for work opportunities. As Kuwait continues to grapple with economic changes stemming from a decline in global oil prices, public discussion surrounding Kuwait’s expatriate population has become increasingly bitter, with expatriates being blamed for draining the state’s resources and siphoning money away from social spending directed at Kuwaiti citizens. In the midst of these rising tensions, several members of Parliament (MPs) have called for policies explicitly aimed at reducing the number of foreign nationals living in the country. Such propositions have ranged from deportation en masse to expatriate-specific taxes and fees. This increased level of antipathy towards expatriates in Kuwait is a worrying development, particularly in the context of a country and region in which migrant workers are already subject to systematic abuse. Rights groups and governments alike must therefore continue to monitor this trend closely, seeking to ensure that conditions for migrant laborers in Kuwait do not continue to worsen.

Expatriates make up roughly 70% of Kuwait’s population of 4.1 million people. Despite the current uptick in the frequency with which demographic issues are being discussed in Kuwaiti politics, Kuwaiti MPs have sought to expel large numbers of expatriates from the country for years. In 2014, for example, MP Khalil Abdullah called on the government to deport 280,000 expatriates from Kuwait every year for five consecutive years in order to force a balance between citizens and expatriate residents. Support for such mass deportation persists today. In early January 2017, for example, a group of MPs called for the deportation of one million expatriates over a five-year period. Such a move would be equivalent to the removal of nearly 25 percent of Kuwait’s entire population in half a decade.

Kuwaiti MPs have also proposed amending Kuwait’s demographic structure by instituting special taxes and fees that specifically target expatriates. Such policies aim to increase the cost of living for expatriates in Kuwait to the point that it becomes prohibitive for many unskilled laborers currently working in the country. Recently, the loudest proponent of such measures has been MP Safa Al-Hashem. Early in 2017, Al-Hashem called on the government to impose a tax on expatriates for using utilities like electricity and water. In March 2017, she implored Kuwaiti authorities to stop providing expatriates access to medicine at public hospitals and clinics. More recently, Al-Hashem made headlines for calling on the authorities to cease issuing driving licenses to foreigners because of Kuwait’s traffic problems. In the past, she has even sought to levy a special tax on expatriates for walking on the country’s roads.

Though these particular proposals have not yet become government policy, the Kuwaiti government has taken steps to increase the financial burdens faced by its expatriate residents. In October 2016, for instance, the Immigrant Department of Kuwait’s Ministry of Interior raised the minimum salary that a foreigner must earn in order to obtain legal residency status for their family members. This change disproportionately impacted low-income expatriates, many of whom were reportedly forced to send their spouses and children home. Some children whose parents cannot afford to legally sponsor them under this policy remain in the country nonetheless. This has contributed to a rise in undocumented children living in Kuwait who cannot register for schools or visit public hospitals and medical clinics.

Kuwaiti authorities have also repeatedly indicated that they will increase healthcare costs for expatriates. Further exemplifying its willingness to cut health-related benefits to immigrants, the government is preparing to open the doors on Jaber Hospital, the first government-operated hospital to open in Kuwait in more than 30 years – but the nearly $1 billion facility will not offer its services to expatriates. The government’s efforts to make medical care more expensive and less accessible stand in sharp juxtaposition with the makeup of the Kuwait’s professional medical staff. Indeed, approximately 70 percent of the country’s doctors and over 90 percent of its nurses are foreigners.

The current rhetorical environment surrounding expatriates in Kuwait is deeply concerning because it may encourage the development of widespread anti-immigrant hostility. Indeed, policies such as those MPs and the government have proposed cast foreigners as the reasons behind a number of societal problems, from crime to traffic jams. Such a view can paint expatriates as a privileged class of outsiders taking advantage of the country’s citizens. This is problematic because it obscures the reality of life for expatriates in Kuwait. Indeed, migrant laborers in Kuwait are forced to live and work under the kafala sponsorship system, which both creates and sustains conditions under which they are subject to a wide variety of abusive labor practices. This discourse is also problematic because it obscures the fact that Kuwaiti laws intended to provide migrant workers with legal rights are often insufficiently enforced, as is the case with the country’s anti-human trafficking legislation. Domestic workers are afforded even fewer rights and often suffer under abusive employers. Indeed, the world’s attention was briefly focused on Kuwait in early April 2017 while a video of an Ethiopian domestic worker falling seven stories from a window after begging her employer for help was widely shared on social media. Such incidents are not aberrations, but rather reflect the precarious conditions in which domestic workers, and expatriates more broadly, often work and live in Kuwait.

Rather than adding to or denying the difficulties faced by Kuwait’s expatriates and migrant labor force, the government should commit itself to policies aimed at abolishing the kafala system and respecting the rights of those who help build its infrastructure and staff its hospitals. Rather than vilifying an already-vulnerable segment of the population, Kuwait’s lawmakers must adopt a more inclusive and compassionate approach to addressing any social and economic issues they might face. Until Kuwait is ready and willing to move in this direction, governments and observers around the world must watch the situation of Kuwait’s expatriates closely and ensure that rhetoric does not devolve into unfair and abusive policy.

Phil Bracey in an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.