(Beirut) – People in immigration detention in Gulf countries pending deportation should be given alternatives to detention amid health risks and global travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries should also curb arrests of undocumented migrants, including of workers who “abscond;” lift any overstay fines; and follow procedures for migrants who wish to return home that respect health and safety standards. The authorities should release all immigration detainees whose detention is either unlawful or unnecessary, including anyone whose deportation is not feasible in the near future.

“Many migrant workers in the Gulf, especially those who are undocumented through no fault of their own or have fled unscrupulous employers, are in prolonged pre-deportation detention in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Gulf states should take prompt measures to protect the health and rights of detainees and staff in immigration detention centers, including by releasing people and finding alternatives to detention.”

Infectious diseases like COVID-19 pose a serious risk to populations in closed institutions such as immigration detention centers. These institutions have often been found to provide inadequate health care even prior to this outbreak, and detainees have contracted infectious diseases in the past. In many detention centers, overcrowding, shared bathrooms, and poor hygiene make it virtually impossible to put into effect basic measures to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

The GCC states – BahrainKuwaitOmanQatarSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – host large migrant worker populations under various iterations of the exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers and leaves them vulnerable to abuse. Across these countries, forms of immigration-related detention are used for purposes other than as a last resort to ensure imminent deportation, often in situations that may be considered arbitrary or otherwise contrary to international human rights standards.

Overcrowding is a serious and recurring problem in many of the Gulf states’ prisons and detention centers. Many have unsanitary conditions and inadequate food, water, and medical care, and many detainees experience ill-treatment by prison guards. Gulf states should work with relevant United Nations authorities to provide clear guidance on release, alternatives to detention, and how countries can ensure adequate and safe shelter to people once released.

Under the Gulf states’ various kafala systems, a migrant worker’s legal status is bound to an individual employer for their contract period, granting the employer extensive powers over the migrant worker. Workers must be sponsored by an employer to enter the country, and remain tied to this employer throughout their stay. With the exception of Bahrain and, in some cases the UAE, the employer has the authority to renew residence permits, making migrant workers dependent on their employers for their legal status.

If the employer fails to regularize their employees’ legal status, whether to avoid fees or from neglect, the workers suffer the consequences, with a risk of arrest and deportation. In all six countries, a migrant worker who leaves his employer without permission can be punished with imprisonment, fines, deportation, and bans for “absconding,” a criminal offense. This system gives employers unchecked leverage and control over workers, many of whom remain completely dependent upon the sponsoring employer for their livelihood.

In some countries, employers can also be punished for not reporting to the authorities when their workers have “absconded.” Human Rights Watch has also documented cases across the region in which employers falsely claim that a worker has “absconded” as a form of reprisal or threaten to do so to keep workers trapped in abusive situations. In all six countries, the length of time a person can remain in administrative immigration detention can vary widely, ranging anywhere from two weeks to more than a year.

As travel bans imposed as a response to COVID-19, either by the Gulf states or by workers’ countries of origin, have ground international travel to a halt, in many cases, holding migrants pending deportation is no longer justified, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should release immigration detainees who cannot be deported in the foreseeable future. They should prioritize the release of those who are at a high risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19, such as people with disabilities and older people.

Alternative and safe accommodation, along with provisions for food and water, should be provided so that no one is made homeless as a result of release from detention. People released from immigration detention should also be screened for COVID-19, and if positive, isolated and monitored for severe illness. If negative, they should be released to quarantine, as necessary, and on the same conditions as other people in the country.

On March 26, Saudi Arabia’s governmental Human Rights Commission announced that Saudi Arabia had released 250 foreign national detainees held for non-violent immigration violations, according to Reuters.

Gulf states should also consider suspending arrests for “absconding” as an immigration violation or other immigration violations. They should also consider extending visas to ensure that residents have continued legal residency in the country, particularly as travel bans can mean they become irregular through no fault of their own. Workers currently away from the country may not be able to re-enter the country during the current crisis. They should in principle be allowed re-entry without penalty once travel bans are lifted, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 25, the UAE said it will automatically issue and renew the work permits and residency visas of migrant domestic workers and laborers, exempting them from the medical exams required for permit renewal. Kuwait has issued an amnesty during April in which people who overstayed their visas or are otherwise undocumented will be allowed to leave the country without paying fines and will be allowed re-entry in the future. Some migrants are allowed to regularize their situation by paying a fine.

“Gulf countries cannot justify continued immigration detention while deportation is impossible and prisoners face heightened health risks with no end in sight,” Page said.

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