Crammed into work camps, stood down from their jobs, facing high rates of infection and with no way home, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East, migrant advocates and diplomats say.
Migrant workers’ risk of exposure to Covid-19 is so high, rights groups say, that host countries need to offer the same protections granted to their citizens or face the threat of a rampant outbreak that proves ever more difficult to contain.
© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
Concern is focused on the wealthy Gulf states, where migrant labour makes up half or more of the population. Gas- and oil-fuelled economies have lured millions of low-skilled workers from south and south-east Asia and Africa over recent decades.
Construction workers are now mostly confined to dormitories, far from the skylines and stadiums they had been building, and stripped of their incomes. The same applies in the retail and energy sectors, staffed almost exclusively by foreign labour.
Related slideshow: Coronavirus outbreak (Provided by Photo Services)
Emergency medical personnel check a patient who was in isolation at home but started experiencing worsening symptoms, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, U.S., on April 17.
Candles are lit in the shape of a giant cross in memory of coronavirus victims, in Zella-Mehlis, Germany, on April 17.
Police check vehicles on July 15 Martyrs Bridge during restrictions imposed as part of the measures to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 18.
An Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) wearing personal protective equipment walks out of the Cobble Hill Health Center nursing home during the ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, U.S., on April 17.
A health worker rests her back against a wall at the Manuel Belgrano hospital, where medical professionals protest over the lack of protective equipment and demand tests after several of their colleagues got infected with COVID-19, in San Martin, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 17.
Firefighters play their instruments in honor of health workers from a basket atop a ladder at the Santa Casa hospital in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on April 17.
A worker disinfects the floor of a supermarket in Pristina, Kosovo, on April 17, as a preventive measure against the spread of the new coronavirus.
A man carries food past members of the FSC 101 Engineering Battalion of the Massachusetts National Guard, as he assists at a pop-up food pantry in Chelsea, Massachusetts, U.S., on April 17.
Delhi Fire Service (DFS) personnel spray disinfectant chemicals along a road during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 outbreak in New Delhi, India, on April 16.
A sign is seen at a shop in the mostly deserted city center, following the implementation of stricter social-distancing and self-isolation rules, in Sydney, Australia, on April 16.
A worker wearing protective gear waves to a woman while using disinfectant to clean outside of the residences in Santiago, Chile, on April 15.
A passenger receives a mask in Mexico City, Mexico, on April 15. Face masks are mandatory inside any subway station April 17 onward.
Supporters of the Michigan Conservative Coalition protest against the state’s extended stay-at-home order, at the Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, U.S., on April 15.
Volunteers sew face masks, as a guitarist plays for volunteers, at the Hafez theater hall in downtown Tehran, Iran, on April 15.
A mural in tribute to the NHS is pictured as a woman walks by while the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Liverpool, U.K., on April 15.
A funeral worker wears a face mask with an illustration of Jesus outside Los Ceibos hospital in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on April 15.
A soldier sprays disinfectant near the Capitol in Havana, Cuba, on April 15.
An Indian traffic policeman stands next to an artwork displayed on a road to create awareness about coronavirus during lockdown in Gauhati, India, on April 15.
The statue of Christ the Redeemer is lit up with the image of a medical scrub and the word “Thank you” in different languages during an Easter Sunday event amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on April 12.
An aerial view shows safety signage near the Interstate 5 freeway in the ongoing effort to manage the coronavirus pandemic in Commerce, California, U.S., on April 12.
A policeman wearing a coronavirus helmet takes part with others in a procession to raise awareness about COVID-19 during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Chennai, India, on April 12.
A woman runs past posters with a message of hope, in Manchester, England, on April 12.
Medical workers react to applause from firefighters, police and members of the public outside NYU Langone Hospital in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., on April 12.
A medical worker holds an Easter bunny balloon to applause from firefighters and members of the public outside NYU Langone Hospital in New York City, New York, U.S., on April 12.
A woman walks past an NHS graffiti sign at Hilly Fields, London, England, on April 11.
A pastor leads an Easter service that is live-streamed via the internet for parishioners due to social gathering restrictions implemented to curb the spread of coronavirus, at One1Seven evangelical Anglican church in Sydney, Australia, on April 12.
The U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” fly over Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., to show appreciation and support for the healthcare workers, first responders and other essential personnel who are working on the frontlines to combat the spread of coronavirus, on April 11.
A woman wears a plastic food container for protection, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, U.S., on April 11.
Hand-drawn pictures of rainbows and messages are seen on a window, as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues, in Ripon, England, on April 11.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 11. North Korea says it’ll take more thorough measures to guard against the coronavirus, though it has been maintaining a “very stable anti-epidemic situation.”
Empty food shelves are seen at a supermarket in Moscow, Russia, on April 11.
A police officer checks the identity card of a vehicle’s occupant following the imposition of restrictions by Costa Rica’s government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease, in San Jose, on April 10.
A novice monk wearing a protective mask runs at the premises of a monastery, in Kathmandu, Nepal on April 10.
Visitors at Sydney Fish Market have their temperature checked before being allowed access, in Australia, on April 10.
Special Task Force (STF) personnel wearing protective gear spray disinfectant outside the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 10.
A woman wears a self-made protective body covering with built-in mask in Gdynia, Poland, on April 9.
People walk at Times Square in New York, U.S., while some screens are seen illuminated in blue to honor healthcare workers, on April 9.
Soldiers wearing face masks stand in formation in front of a U.S.-made M110A2 self-propelled howitzer during Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to a military base in Tainan, Taiwan, on April 9.
People wearing face masks peek from windows of the Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital in Hubei province, China, on April 9.
A woman prays during a live streamed mass as photos of the faithful are displayed on the benches at the Nuestra Senora de Fatima in San Jose, Costa Rica, on April 8.
A woman puts cloth face masks on a string to dry before distributing it for free in the neighborhood in Tangerang, Indonesia, on April 9.
Medical workers walk by a police robot at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in China, after travel restrictions to leave the city were lifted, on April 8.
A girl puts her completed drawing of an Easter egg on the window of her home in Auckland, New Zealand, on April 8. New Zealanders are being encouraged to draw and display Easter eggs on their windows to create an Easter egg hunt that children can participate in during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Employees of Harborview Medical Center pose for photos while accepting pizzas donated by basketball player and Seattle native Isaiah Thomas in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on April 7.
A resident of a nursing home waves at an elderly woman as the MAV Symphony Orchestra plays classical music recordings on the loudspeakers of a car going around the city to cheer up people under lockdown in Budapest, Hungary, on April 7.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers a ministerial statement on COVID-19 in the House of Representatives in Canberra, Australia, on April 8.
Travelers line up with their belongings outside the Hankou Railway Station after travel restrictions to leave Wuhan, China, were lifted, on April 8.
A city employee, wearing protective gear, poses for a photograph as he disinfects an area of Paseo de la Reforma avenue in Mexico City, Mexico, on April 6.
Men dressed up as superheroes Spider-Man and Captain America stand with a banner reading “Stay at Home” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on April 6.
A healthcare worker wearing protective gear is seen during a test for the coronavirus (COVID-19) outside a stadium in Bogor, Indonesia, on April 7.
An artist paints a mural on a wall in Pontefract, England, on April 6.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, departs after the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on April 6.
A resident picks up a box with food given to them by the army, at the Santa Rosita neighborhood on the outskirts of Guatemala City, Gautemala, on April 6, during a stay-at-home curfew designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Food is distributed from a truck as part of a government program in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on April 6.
Municipal workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant in Grozny, Russia, on April 6.
German tourists queue up to enter Christchurch International Airport in New Zealand, on April 6. Air New Zealand is operating a number of special charter flights on behalf of the German government to repatriate German travelers stranded in New Zealand due the COVID-19 pandemic.
Staff members of a hospital carry candles and oil lamps to show solidarity with people who are affected by the coronavirus disease, and with doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers from all over the world during a 21-day nationwide lockdown, in Kolkata, India, on April 5.
A volunteer woman wearing a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of the coronavirus sews face masks in a mosque in Tehran, Iran, on April 5.
Pope Francis celebrates Palm Sunday mass behind closed doors, during a lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, on April 5.
A devotee stands next to palm fronds and religious icons placed on a table outside her home, as part of Palm Sunday celebrations in Quezon City, Philippines, on April 5.
A person wearing a personal protective equipment (PPE) suit exits the Elmhurst Hospital center, as the outbreak of coronavirus disease continues, in New York City, New York, U.S., on April 5.
A man wearing a mask looks on in Bnei Brak, Israel, on April 5. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish town was declared a “restricted zone” due to its high rate of infections on April 3.
A motorist rides through a disinfection tunnel during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against COVID-19, in Chennai, India, on April 5.
Residents receive free reusable masks distributed by the government at a community center, as stricter measures are announced to combat the outbreak of the COVID-19 in Singapore, on April 5.
People wearing face masks, amid concerns of the COVID-19 disease, commute on a train in Hong Kong on April 4.
A woman wearing a protective mask is seen checking her cell phone in Woolwich district of London, England, on April 4, as the spread of the COVID-19 continues.
A view of beds at a shopping mall, one of Iran’s largest, which has been turned into a center to receive patients suffering from the coronavirus disease, in Tehran, Iran, on April 4.
Members of Local Defence Unit (LDU) offload relief food during a distribution exercise to civilians affected by the lockdown, implemented to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19, in Kampala, Uganda, on April 4.
A man walks in the middle of empty Westminster Bridge, as the spread of COVID-19 continues, in London, England, on April 3.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the new coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on April 3.
A resident wearing a protective face mask waits for coronavirus testing at a makeshift rapid testing center in Hanoi, Vietnam, on April 3.
A couple, wearing masks to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, is seen waiting at Independence square in Quito, Ecuador, on April 3.
City workers fumigate a street to help contain the spread of coronavirus in La Paz, Bolivia, on April 2.
NHS workers applaud on the streets outside Royal Liverpool University Hospital during the Clap for Our Carers Campaign in England, on April 2.
A New England Patriots Boeing 767-300 jet with a shipment of over one million N95 masks from China arrives at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on April 2.
A volunteer sanitizes a bus passenger before he enters his municipality in Panchimalco, El Salvador, on April 2.
Women maintain social distance as they wait to receive relief supplies provided by local police authority in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 2.
People wearing face masks wait for a supermarket to open in Wuhan, China, on April 2.
Hotel room lights spell out “Vegas Strong” at the Wynn hotel-casino along the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, U.S., on April 1.
Workers wearing protective suits pray before a disinfection operation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on April 1.
Women stand in a queue to receive relief supplies provided by the local community in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 1.
An aerial view of a notice dug into the sand reading #StayHome on Tamarama Beach in Sydney, Australia, on April 2.
Residents pay for groceries by standing on chairs to peer over barriers set up to ringfence a wet market in Wuhan on April 1.
A baker presents sweets in the shape of the “coronavirus” (R) and antibodies with a face mask and eyes, in Erfurt, Germany, on March 31.
Police officers walk across an empty Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on March 31, 2020.
A young man cuts another man’s hair on top of a closed hairdresser, in Oxford, England, on March 31.
People follow social distancing as they line up to enter a supermarket, amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, in La Paz, Bolivia, on March 30.
The One World Trade Center is illuminated in red, white and blue in recognition of the ongoing nationwide effort to combat coronavirus in New York City, as it is seen from Exchange Place, New Jersey, U.S., on March 30.
People wearing face masks practise social distancing as they wait outside a Postal Savings Bank of China branch in Wuhan, China, on March 31.
A man reaches to a basket, that was hung up so people can donate or take for free food, as Italy struggles to contain the spread of coronavirus, in Naples, on March 30.
A medical personnel reacts in the COVID-19 unit of the Erasme Hospital in Brussels, Belgium, on March 30.
Buddhist monks wearing face shields and masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus disease collect alms in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 31.
A healthcare worker sits on a bench near Central Park in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., on March 30.
Nurses work to prepare the intensive care unit in the new COVID-19 hospital in Verduno, Italy, on March 29, on the eve of its official opening.
An emergency triage tent is seen at Harborview Medical Center as efforts continue to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on March 29.
People applaud from their houses in support of the medical staff that are working on the COVID-19 virus outbreak in Barcelona, Spain, on March 29.
Environmental activists wearing masks symbolizing the coronavirus attend a prevention campaign as people take measures to protect themselves against the spread of COVID-19 in Seoul, South Korea, on March 30.
A police officer maintains distance as he detains a man defying the lockdown imposed by the government amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease in Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 29.
A man walks past on a nearly empty Tokyo street amid snowfall during the first weekend after Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike urged Tokyo residents to stay indoors in a bid to keep the COVID-19 from spreading, on March 29.
Migrant workers crowd up outside a bus station as they wait to board buses to return to their villages during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of COVID-19, in Ghaziabad, India, on March 28.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks during a press conference at the CenturyLink Field Event Center, where a field a hospital for non-COVID-19 cases will be built, as efforts continue to help slow the spread of coronavirus disease, in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on March 28.
Medical and physician assistant students in personal protective equipment listen during a meeting before screening for possible coronavirus cases at a makeshift camp for the homeless in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on March 28.
Indonesia’s Red Cross personnel wearing protective suits spray disinfectant on the road to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Jakarta, Indonesia, on March 28.
China’s ambassador in Venezuela Li Baorong (L) and Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodríguez are seen after the arrival of humanitarian aid from China at Simón Bolívar International Airport during the national quarantine, in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 28.
A violinist plays on her balcony to support health workers in Mulhouse, France, on March 28, 2020.
The message “Merci” (French for “thank you”) is displayed in tribute of those on the frontline to fight the coronavirus disease, on the facade of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, on March 27.
A man plays his accordion to lift his parents’ spirits after they started practicing social isolation in their house to prevent themselves from catching the coronavirus disease, in Concepción, Chile on March 26.
The London Eye is lit up as part of a nationwide salute to the doctors, nurses and staff of the National Health Service (NHS) in London, England, on March 26.
The MV Artania cruise ship with passengers tested positive for the coronavirus is seen berthed at the Fremantle Harbor near Perth, Australia, on March 27.
Members of the Arizona National Guard pack and sort food items at a food bank in Mesa, Arizona, U.S., on March 26.
A person in protective clothing walks through a temporary 2,000-bed hospital for coronavirus patients set up by the Iranian army at the international exhibition center in Tehran, Iran, on March 26.
A young girl attends a ballet class from home while practising social distancing during the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Brooklyn, New York City, New York, U.S. on March 25.
A staff member sprays disinfectant at a cinema as it prepares to reopen to the public after closing due to coronavirus (COVID-19), in Shenyang, Chin on March 25.
A barber, reflected in a mirror wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), styles a customer’s hair in Havana, Cuba on March 25.
A policeman checks motorists at a roadblock during the first day of a 21 day government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against coronavirus (COVID-19) in New Delhi, India on March 25.
A soldier inspects beds for treatment of possible COVID-19 infected patients inside the Belgrade Fair, Serbia, on March 24.
People practice social distancing as they sit on chairs spread apart in a waiting area for takeaway food orders at a shopping malls amid coronavirus (COVID-19) scare in Bangkok, Thailand on March 24.
People wearing facemasks queue outside a shop at Pugoda on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo on March 24, as the authorities briefly lifted a curfew to allow residents to stock up on essentials amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).
Football Federation Australia (FFA) Chief Executive Officer James Johnson speaks to the media during a press conference in Sydney, Australia, on March 24. Johnson said that the rest of the A-League soccer season has been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A man plays guitar and sings to his neighbors from his balcony two days after California’s Governor Gavin Newsom implemented a state wide “stay at home order” in Oakland, California, U.S., on March 21.
“The problem is in the dormitories, as social distancing can be organised in the dining areas,” said Ryszard Cholewinski, a senior migration specialist with the International Labour Organisation. “There have been attempts by a number of companies to sort out sleeping arrangements, but even on a good day in some of these facilities, people are four to a room.”
Across the Gulf states, migrant workers account for high proportions of Covid-19 infections. In Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain, official figures suggest nearly all contractions have been among foreigners, many of whom live in labour camps.
A report released by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre this month noted that migrant workers in the Gulf “live in tightly packed labour camps, often in unsanitary conditions, some without access to running water.”
“These conditions provide the perfect conditions for the spread of Covid-19. Quarantines and other movement and travel restrictions … may inadvertently raise the risk to workers, as well as result in workers suffering severe economic consequences from being unable to work,” the report said.
The rate of infection among migrants has shaken Gulf states, which – mindful of the reaction of their citizens – have stepped up efforts to repatriate large numbers of workers, often meeting little response from home countries.
While Gulf states have offered healthcare to migrants who have tested positive for the virus, there are concerns among migrant communities that state authorities are reluctant to comprehensively treat the large numbers of carriers in camps.
“They have been here three times and done testing and some of my friends have been taken away,” said Iqbal Rashid, a construction worker from Pakistan in a camp in Qatar. “But there are many others here who are sick. And even if I wanted to go home, who is going to help me? My government? Their government? We are stuck and helpless.”
Regional states have acknowledged that the camps are ideal incubators for the disease, but they appear to be balancing the risk to workers against a threat to the broader community.
The spectre of migrants being disproportionately affected by the virus while citizens are largely spared has cast fresh light on the near total dependency of some of the world’s richest countries on migrant labour to power their economies.
Migrant workforces are building football stadiums across Qatar to be used in the 2022 World Cup, the Expo 2020 facilities in Dubai and much of the infrastructure for the G20 summit due in Riyadh in November. The high rate of deaths among Nepalese construction workers in Qatar has been frequently condemned by labour groups. Qatar has railed at the comparison and claims to have improved workplace conditions.
Upwards of 40,000 Pakistanis in the UAE have registered for repatriation, and Abu Dhabi has threatened to revisit labour relations with India if it does not cooperate with efforts to return its expatriates.
Despite hardships, workers have continued to flock to the Gulf, sending billions of dollars in remittances home, where employment opportunities are often fewer and not as well paid.
“There are many workers in the GCC (Gulf cooperation countries) who don’t want to go back and are keen to stay to try to find work,” said Cholewinski. “There are huge numbers of job losses and not much enthusiasm from some home countries in getting many of these workers back given the challenges associated in managing large returns at this time and the increasing scarcity of job opportunities back home.”
Cholewinski said some states had been more proactive than others. Kuwait had offered amnesties and flights home to migrants who are in the country without valid papers. Undocumented workers are seen as one of the biggest risks of transmission, making tracking them a public health priority.
Qatar, meanwhile, had been among the first to lock down some camps, while offering some workers flexibility in employment conditions, which could lead to them taking any available new jobs.