International Policy Digest: The Kafala System

International Policy Digest: The Kafala System


The Qatar women’s jail lies hidden far outside of Doha’s central Al Rayyan district, in a compound of 10-foot walls. It resembles more of a construction trailer, than an array of human-sized cages. Women, mostly Filipino and South Asian, are often escorted there without handcuffs, but held by an abaya-adorned woman, from the Ministry of the Interior. The holding cell itself is crowded by scores of women, all vying for space during their detainment to eat, sleep, pray or make food. The sole sink-and-toilet-only bathroom adjoining it not only services all thirty or so women, but also serves as a makeshift shower, bath and laundry.

The majority of the women migrate from South Asia and the Philippines seeking employment as domestic laborers in Qatar – the second richest country in the world – and other Gulf States. Most gain employment via domestic agencies that maintain relationships with the Qatari government; yet these entities rarely educate women about the potential pitfalls of the work: long hours, low pay (if any), domestic enslavement – and in some cases, sexual abuse.

Once one – or more – of these has occurred and the workers escape their mistreatment, neither the agencies nor the government protects their newest arrivals through Ministry of Labor laws, safe houses or even legal recourse, leaving them to face extortion from corrupt local officials and imprisonment. The United States and other Western countries – with lucrative business ties to the country, and ex-pats who hire these workers – have, so far, turned a blind eye to the problem.

“We have been working on this for six or seven years now, but it is massive in scale and largely hidden compared to other human rights abuses,” says Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.

“When we try to bring up this issue in the region, we find that journalists, government agents and even other human rights workers are actually employers (of South Asian women) themselves.” Last month, Human Rights Watch issued the latest of many reports targeting the abuse of migrant workers abroad: “Walls at Every Turn: Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers through Kuwait’s Sponsorship System,” this time turning its focus to the Middle East. Though the report concentrates on Kuwait, Varia states the problem is endemic to most of the countries of the Arabian Gulf, specifically Oman, Bahrain, the United ArabEmirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – many of which rank now in the world’s top GDP percentiles, due to their oil-based economies.


Qatar, like many other Arabian Gulf states, remains bound to the kafala (sponsorship) system, in which foreigners are “sponsored” by their employer, who hold their passport, control their movements, demand fees to terminate a contract and prevent them from changing jobs. Qatari officials, members of the royal family, ex-pats with close ties to the country and even lawmakers maintain that domestic employers in Qatar treat their employees like “family members,” which, in their eyes, makes legal reforms moot, and effectively separates domestic workers from the laws that govern regular workspaces. Qatar officials have also placed no restrictions on the employment of women, with opportunities determined by market demand and located mainly in service professions.

Once the filial goodwill ends, however, and domestic workers flee, their sponsors report them to the police, who arrest and charge them with absconding. Government officials then immediately cancel the workers’ residency visa and leave them in one-room prisons, where they are subject to the mercy of police guards and administrators, who regulate their living conditions, their meals and even their access to outside help on a whim. Only 20 percent of female inmates ultimately have access to attorneys, while the remaining 80 percent face Islamic courts without a lawyer, many times after waiting months for a hearing in these holding circumstances.

“If these women do make it to an embassy shelter before they are arrested, they are housed among 200 to 600 other women at any given time,” Varia says. “This certainly gives you a sense of how pressing the problem really is.”


In many ways, Qatar has emerged as a beacon of the restive and recalcitrant Middle East. The emirate has undergone a period of liberalization and modernization under the current Emir,Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, but most importantly under his closest ally, Her HighnessSheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al- Missned, his second wife. Sheika Mozah chairs the progressiveQatar Foundation, sits on the board of Qatar’s Supreme Education Council, and in September, gave a presentation at the UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals in New York.

“Her Highness Sheikha Mozah has a leading role in promoting peaceful dialogue and cross cultural understanding as a means to bring about peaceful resolutions,” reads her official website. “Through her work with UNESCO and the UN Alliance of Civilizations, she helps formulate programs to educate and protect victims of human rights abuses – victims who are usually women, children and youth.”

Despite its espousal of humanitarianism, the government of Qatar has not yet enacted necessary anti-trafficking legislation or shown evidence of prosecuting and punishing trafficking offenders and identifying victims of trafficking. Human Rights Watch has called on the Gulf States to abolish or significantly amend provisions of kafala to prevent forced labor of migrant workers; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has singled out Qatar. Short of that,UNHCR has asked the Ministry of Labor to increase efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking and apply formal procedures to identify victims among vulnerable groups, such as those arrested for immigration violations or prostitution.

Most of all, Varia says the government, run by the royal family, has the obligation to shift the social attitude toward domestic slavery. “One of the reasons it is so difficult to combat, is that it’s accepted. People think its okay to take her passport, make her work seven days a week, subject her to inhumane conditions,” she says, “We need constant and continuing advocacy.”