Properly managed, migration has the potential to spur economic growth, innovation, and positive cross-cultural interaction that enriches individuals, societies, and countries. The importance of migration and migrants to development of the global economy, and especially to its recovery and revival post-COVID-19, as well as to social and human development is proven and irrefutable.

Nevertheless, this important subject has not merited the attention it deserves at the various local, regional and international gatherings on policy- and decision-making. Migration and the plight of migrants tends to grab headlines and world attention only on those occasions when there is a mass migration of refugees from a country or region due to conflicts, or economic and social upheavals.

It is no surprise therefore that a landmark international meeting on migration at the United Nations headquarters in New York lacked the fanfare and adequate media coverage that a gathering of this crucial nature warranted. Except for those directly involved and the handful of civil society organizations and other stakeholders in migration and migrants, most people were unaware of the event or its significance.
The International Migration Review Forum (IMRF), held from 17 – 20 May at the UN headquarters, was the first review process of the seminal Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) that calls for a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions, which was adopted in 2018 by most UN Member States, including Kuwait.

The Forum was an opportunity for participants to highlight successes and challenges faced in implementing the GCM at the local, national, regional and global levels over the last four years.

It involved a review of all 23 primary objectives outlined in the GCM, including strengthening governance of international migration, ensuring migrant human rights are respected, reducing vulnerabilities that undermine wellbeing, and promoting legal migration pathways. Attendees agreed to take further concrete actions to better protect and support the more than 281 million migrants in the world through policy and practice change.

The IMRF Progress Declaration issued at the end of the forum provided states and all partners with a common way forward on migration governance. In his comments at the conclusion of the Forum, President of the UN General Assembly, Abdullah Shahid noted: “While the finalization of the Progress Declaration is a milestone for multilateral engagement on migration, we have an obligation to breathe life into that text. To act upon its provisions and realize their concrete benefits.”

Despite signing on to the GCM in December 2018, and repeatedly affirming commitments to protect migrants and their rights, the inability to “act upon the provisions’, as the UNGA President put it, has been the main stumbling block in front of Kuwait when it comes to implementing many of the objectives and provisions outlined in the GCM. The recommendations made in the latest IMRF Progress Declaration are also very likely to meet a similar fate.

GCM emerged out of the understanding that no one government can effectively govern migration alone, including in realizing the full potential of global mobility, as well as protecting people from harm. Accordingly, the GCM that was adopted in 2018, was the result of an agreement that was reached through intergovernmental negotiations. The agreement won approval from the majority of nations participating in a global conference convened by the UN General Assembly in Marrakech, Morocco, in December 2018. The GCM agreement was endorsed a week later by the UN General Assembly, with 152 countries, including Kuwait, voting in favor, with 5 against.

Those voting against the GCM were the Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Poland, and the United States of America. Countries critical of the GCM underscored among others that the document did not make a distinction between economic migrants and humanitarian refugees, and that it did not differentiate between illegal and legal migrants. Due to the need to achieve maximum consensus during negotiations, the GCM that eventually emerged is a non-binding document that gives states the space and flexibility to pursue its implementation based on their own migration realities and capacities.

The document also affirms the right of states to distinguish between regular and irregular migration status. And it provides States with a comprehensive list of options from which they can select policy options to address some of the most pressing issues around international migration in their context. Nonetheless, the GCM is considered the best blueprint for a comprehensive, rights-based migration policy with its 23 objectives covering all facets of migration that can be integrated into national policies.

However, Kuwait has struggled with implementing several of the 23 objectives outlined in the GCM, in particular Objectives 6, 10 and 17, which respectively call for: facilitating fair and ethical recruitment and safeguarding conditions that ensure decent work; preventing, combating and eradicating trafficking in persons (TIP); and, eliminating all forms of discrimination, and promoting evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration.

Though Kuwait has introduced several reforms, enacted laws and issued decrees aimed at fair and ethical treatment of migrants and safeguarding their rights, as well as attempted to eliminate or reduce discrimination against migrants and minorities in society and in the labor market, these endeavors have been less than successful over the years.

In 2015, Kuwait issued a new standard contract for migrant workers, and a 2016 administrative decision allowed some migrant workers to transfer their sponsorship to a new employer after three years of work, without their employer’s consent. Although these reforms did reduce the hold of sponsors on workers, they did not stop employers from devising new ways of ‘locking-in’ workers. Moreover, these reforms did not include the legions of migrant domestic workers.

In 2015, the National Assembly passed another law granting domestic workers the right to a weekly day off, 30 days of annual paid leave, a 12-hour working day with rest, and an end-of-service benefit of one month salary for each year of work at the end of the contract period, among other rights. In 2016 and 2017, the Interior Ministry passed implementing regulations for the law, and mandated that employers must pay overtime compensation. The ministry also issued a decree establishing a minimum wage of KD60 (US$200) for domestic workers. However, it is in implementing these laws on the ground that have left much to be desired.

In this regard, it needs to be mentioned that in most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states — with their contiguous borders with fellow GCC member Saudi Arabia, and with generally similar strict immigration regulations — mass migration of people is not an issue. The main challenge faced by all GCC states is the one arising from the large migrant population living and working within its borders.

The latest report on Kuwait by the international non-governmental organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW) for 2021, underlined some of the limitations that the country faces in advocating human rights and ensuring equitable treatment and indiscrimination of migrants and minorities. The report noted that despite reforms, migrant workers continue to remain vulnerable to abuse, largely due to the ‘kafala’ (sponsorship) system, which links migrants’ visas to their employers and requires that migrants get their employers’ consent to leave or change jobs.

The report added that migrant workers also do not have adequate legal protections, and remain vulnerable to abuse, forced labor, and deportation for minor infractions. Moreover, migrant domestic workers continue to face additional forms of abuse, including being forcibly confined in their employers’ homes, and being subject to verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Protections for domestic workers are still weaker than those in Kuwait’s labor law.

The report points out that while there have been improvements from enactment of recent laws, the domestic worker law still falls short on setting out enforcement mechanisms, such as inspections of working conditions in households. The law also does not detail any sanctions against employers who confiscate passports or fail to provide adequate housing, food, and medical expenses, work breaks, or weekly rest days, as mandated by the new laws.

Turning to the specific plight of migrants during the COVID-19 crisis the HRW report points out that some of the restrictions imposed by the authorities in response to the global pandemic had a disproportionate impact on already marginalized migrant communities. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many migrant workers found themselves dismissed without their wages, trapped in the country unable to leave due to travel restrictions and more expensive flight tickets. Domestic workers also faced increased risks of abuse by employers due to lockdown restrictions that left them confined to employers’ homes.

Notwithstanding the HRW study on migrant problems in Kuwait, the latest quarterly report from the Kuwait Society for Human Rights (KSHR) painted a more nuanced picture. The KSHR, a non-governmental body promoting human rights in Kuwait, noted in its first-quarter report for 2022 that it monitored improvements in the status of foreign workers, in particular domestic workers, after the government began implementing several decisions.

The report indicated that “the improvement in the conditions of domestic workers came after Ministerial Resolution No. 2022 issued in April on the executive regulations of Law No. 68 of 2015. The new resolution makes it mandatory to provide domestic workers the right to an annual paid leave of at least one month after one year of service; the right to transfer to another employer, and set overtime hours to two hours per day. With regard to other migrant workers, the KHRS report noted that it monitored the implementation of a number of migrant friendly decisions and circulars, “beginning with the Public Authority of Manpower (PAM) resuming work permits for non-graduates aged sixty years and over.

However, it is not the lack of laws on migrant protection that Kuwait suffers from, it is the mindset among some sections of society that discriminates against migrants based on color, ethnicity, religion or other groupings. Last week, Kuwaiti lawmaker Dr. Hamad Al-Mattar, speaking at the first Muslim Minorities Committee meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), in Ankara, Turkey, expressed concern about the challenges, obstacles and problems faced by Muslim groups in several Muslim-minority countries. He stressed the importance of complying with the 2011 United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution No. 16/18 on “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination and incitement to violence against persons based on their religion and beliefs.”

We would like to add that the solution to intolerance lies in strengthening enjoyment of fundamental human rights to people everywhere and of all religions and nationalities — to citizens, migrants, and minorities.

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