Undocumented workers waiting to be picked by contractors in Oman
Undocumented workers waiting to be picked by contractors in Oman|File photo

Undocument Migrants At Greatest Peril As They Are Denied Access To Healthcare

There are millions of undocumented Indian migrant workers in the Arab Gulf and they are afraid of COVID-19

Rejimon Kuttappan

Rejimon Kuttappan

Reghu Anand (name changed), an undocumented Indian worker, in Oman has gone into self imposed isolation and his only concern is that he should not get infected with the Coronavirus.

He has stopped roaming about in Muscat, where he lives, looking for work. A week ago, he had bought two bottles of sanitisers and a mask.

“It had cost me around 10 rials (Rs 1700). I could have bought food for five days with that money. Now, I have to find the money for five days of food. But as this deadly virus is spreading, I didn’t want to take a risk. I have two small children and a non-working wife and aged parents who need to be looked after,” Reghu said.

As Reghu is an undocumented worker, he will not get access to healthcare in Oman.

Kafala System

In Arab countries, under the Kafala system, a migrant worker should have a two-year valid visa status to be eligible for availing access to healthcare.

The Kafala system emerged in the 1950s to regulate the relationship between employers and migrant workers in many countries in West Asia.

It remains the routine practice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and also in the Arab states of Jordan and Lebanon.

The sponsorship system’s economic objective was to provide temporary, rotating labour that could be rapidly brought into the country during the economic boom and expelled during less affluent periods.

Under the Kafala system, a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor (Kafeel) for their contract period.

The migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment nor leave the country for any reason without first obtaining explicit written permission from the Kafeel. The worker must be sponsored by a Kafeel to enter the destination country and remains tied to this Kafeel throughout their stay.

This situates the migrant worker as completely dependent upon their Kafeel for their livelihood and residency.

Becoming Undocumented

There are numerous scenarios created under the restrictions of the Kafala system that can make a migrant worker undocumented.

In most of the cases, a worker becomes undocumented because they are forced to flee an abusive employer, who most often would not pay the worker the wages promised.

“My visa expired some eight months ago. My employer did not bother to renew it. I was on a free visa. I had defaulted paying him his monthly fee to be free, so he was angry with me and he did not renew my visa when it expired,” Reghu added.

In reality, there is no such thing as a “free visa” as Reghu calls it. But there is an arrangement by which if employers are paid a fee, they allow the migrant workers to work for any employer.

In Arab countries, migrant workers are allowed to work for their employer only. However, if you pay additional money to enjoy the freedom to work anywhere, then the employer will allow the same. And this is locally called a free visa.

Six Million Undocumented Workers

According to data from the Solidarity Centre, a non-profit aligned with the US-based labour federation AFL-CIO, there were six million undocumented workers between 2015 and 2018 in all the six Arab Gulf countries.

Amnesty is a scheme announced by the Arab Gulf countries to provide an opportunity for the undocumented or overstaying migrant workers to go home without paying a fine.

If a migrant worker is undocumented or has overstayed for more than two years in Oman, he would be forced to pay at least Rs 1.6 lakh in fines if he wants to leave the country.

In Oman, an overstaying migrant worker will have to pay around OMR 20 (Rs 3900) for visa charges at the immigration counter at the airport and OMR 19 (Rs 3700) at the Ministry of Manpower counter for every month that they remain in Oman.

The fine at the Ministry of Manpower would be calculated for every month and the immigration counter fine will not be calculated after 25 months or once it reaches OMR 500 (Rs 98,000).

If there is an absconding case slapped on the worker, then he has to pay OMR 400 (Rs 78,000) extra.

Reghu’s Fine

In Reghu’s case, he has to pay Rs 32,000, both visa charges and fine for overstaying in Oman and is not sure about the absconding case fine.

When the migrant worker leaves an employer following a dispute, the employer usually files an absconding case with the police and the worker will come to know when he is arrested by police later on or when he goes to the airport to fly back home.

Migrant workers who do not have that money will wait for an amnesty to be announced to return home without paying fines.

Unfortunately, an undocumented worker does not have access to healthcare or justice.

If he has to visit a hospital or a police station, he should have a valid visa. If caught by the police for not having a valid visa, he will be arrested and jailed.

Many undocumented or overstaying workers remain in their hideouts even if they are unwell simply out of fear of arrest.

Unfortunately, there are undocumented women domestic workers working “discreetly” in the Arab Gulf countries.

They too are afraid of Coronavirus infection.

Latha S (name changed), a domestic worker from Tamil Nadu in Oman, was a documented worker till December 2018. Unfortunately, as she could not survive her Arab employer’s exploitation, she had fled her employer’s house. Now she stays with her friends in Muscat and works at different houses.

“I used to work at four houses every day. Now all of them have told me not to come. They are afraid of Coronavirus spread. Additionally, Oman has also banned the public transportation system. So, I can’t travel either. As there is no work, there is no money. And as I am undocumented, I am afraid too. If I get infected, I won’t be able to go to a hospital,” Latha said.

Talking to The Lede, Bino PP, a journalist in Oman, said that many undocumented workers stay in cramped accommodation in certain pockets, where the police are not be able to enter quickly.

“There are some places where these undocumented workers stay together. They watch each other’s back so that they are not caught,” Bino said.

“Additionally, as they stay in cramped accommodation, the chances for the outbreak of such viral diseases is also high,” he added.

On Friday, Oman reported 22 fresh cases of coronavirus, raising the total number of confirmed cases to 131.

All the new cases are Omani citizens, the Oman Health Ministry said.

Ten cases are linked to having a close contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients and eight others are related to travel abroad, while four cases are under epidemiological investigation.

Meanwhile, the Ministry also reported 23 recoveries.

In a statement, the Ministry called on members of the public to adhere to the isolation procedures by staying in isolated rooms attached to a toilet and stated that the isolated person should be served from outside the room as instructed.

Community Transmission In Oman

Meanwhile, late on Thursday, Dr Mohammed bin Said Al Hosni, Under Secretary of the Ministry of Health, told Oman TV that Oman has entered the community transmission stage of coronavirus.

“We have entered the community transmission stage of coronavirus and we expect to see the numbers increase over the coming period,” he said in an interview with Oman TV.

Meanwhile, a businessman in UAE, from where the majority of the Coronavirus cases were imported to Kerala, confirmed that there would be thousands of undocumented migrant workers living in unhygienic conditions risking their lives.

“Many would be afraid to approach the police or a hospital. You need a valid resident card to visit a hospital. When you don’t have that, even if you are unwell, you won't dare to visit a hospital. So, you will make yourself believe that you will recover and stay in the cramped room,” the businessman said.

“For cough and cold, staying back home would be okay. But this is a deadly virus and we need proper treatment. If not, you will die and transfer the disease to others too,” the businessman added.

Fines In The UAE

On Tuesday, the UAE invoked a communicable disease law to tackle COVID-19.

According to the law, any person who knows that they are suffering from communicable disease is punishable by a minimum of 5 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of not less than Dh 50,000 and not more than Dh 100,000 if they deliberately transmit the disease. Repeated violations result in lengthier sentences.

The UAE ministry noted that the sanctions stipulated are aimed at protecting public health and strengthening the state’s efforts in communicable diseases and preventing their spread, including the coronavirus.

The law also adds that doctors, pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and medical practitioners who fail to inform if they know or suspect someone has been infected or has died of any communicable disease, are liable to be punished under this rule.

On Thursday, the UAE directed most of the public and private sectors to have the majority of staff work from home, and imposed overnight curfews as a temporary measure this weekend for nationwide disinfection to combat the coronavirus. Drones were deployed to sanitise roads in the UAE on Thursday night.

The UAE has confirmed 333 cases of the virus as well as two deaths.

Regular Versus Irregular

Meanwhile, Rafeek Ravuther, an Indian migrant rights activist, said that irregular or undocumented migrant workers are the most vulnerable ones in any Arab Gulf country.

“Both sending and host countries should recognise the fact that there are irregular migrants and they are deprived of basic human rights, mainly access to health,” Rafeek said.

“At this situation, when workers need utmost care, we should not differentiate them as documented and undocumented,” Rafeek said adding that civil society organisations should come up with ways to find a solution for such challenges in association with Indian embassies in the Arab Gulf.

M Bheem Reddy, President of Emigrants Welfare Forum, a migrant rights organisation based in Hyderabad, also voiced the same opinion as that of Rafeek.

“Regular or irregular, governments should not deprive the workers of things like access to health and all,” Reddy said adding that the United Nations Global Compact for Migration also puts forward the same idea.

Objective 15 of the GCM aims to ensure that all migrants, regardless of status, have safe access to basic services.

This objective includes several recommendations to facilitate access to basic services by migrants.

While the objective focuses especially on eligibility and access to healthcare and education, fundamental human rights also extend to adequate housing, food, social security, and work, as set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

It tells the countries to incorporate the health needs of migrants into national and local healthcare policies and plans, such as by strengthening capacities for service provision, facilitating affordable and non-discriminatory access and reducing communication barriers.

According to the latest data, Saudi Arabia has reported 1012 cases, Qatar 537, Bahrain 458 and Kuwait 225.

While Saudi has recorded three deaths, Bahrain has reported four and UAE has reported two.

In India, with 19 fresh cases recorded on Thursday, the total number of Coronavirus patients in Kerala has surged to 137.

The state has now the highest coronavirus cases in India. Maharashtra comes a close second with 130 active cases reported so far.

India’s death toll is 17.

According to the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), a total of 27,688 individuals have been tested for coronavirus until March 27.

“A total of 691 individuals have been confirmed positive among suspected cases and contacts of known positive cases,” the update adds.

Starting from Tuesday midnight, India is under a 21-day lockdown to curb the spread of novel coronavirus. Only the essential services like grocery shops, medical outlets remain functional during the lockdown.

Meanwhile, the United States now has more coronavirus cases than any other country with close to 86,000 infections. As of Thursday evening, the United States had at least 82,100 cases while China was reporting 81,782.

The total number worldwide is 531,000, as the global death toll surged past 24,000.

More than 122,000 people worldwide have recovered from Coronavirus, while more than 24,054 people have died, including 1288 in the US.

Italy reported the highest death toll with more than 8200 deaths.

“According to experts, the time taken to get a coronavirus vaccine to market is likely to be at least 18 months. Potential treatments require testing and funding. It is new and scientists understand little about how it behaves and spreads. Till then will the undocumented migrant workers be safe? Or will they be ignored and left uncounted?” Rafeek asked.

The Lede