Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Amnesty Offered to Illegal Workers Under Bahrain's New "Easy Exit Strategy" Campaign in Response to its Growing Expatriate Population

Following the release of new labor data on Bahrain's rising expatriate population and startling unemployment figures, the Kingdom's Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) in cooperation with the General Directorate for Nationality, Passport and Residence, and several local embassies and government ministries has offered amnesty to illegal workers in Bahrain who have overstayed their work visas or failed to apply for extensions. Under this campaign, workers will not face prosecution as a result of their illegal status in the Kingdom but will be required to pay a fine that will be determined by the LMRA and immigration authorities and will reflect the length of time they have overstayed. Any worker involved in pending court cases will not be eligible for deportation under this temporary campaign.

Illegal workers are being encouraged to approach their embassies for assistance in returning home and are reminded of the benefits presented by this temporary immunity from legal prosecution and fast-tracked paperwork processing for their deportation. Local embassies are also being encouraged to forward lists with specific names of illegal workers to help the Bahraini Government facilitate the campaign. In an article from the TradeArabia News Service, quoted officials from the Indian, Pakistani, and Filipino Embassies underscored the positives associated with this initiative, noting that illegal workers should make best use of this chance to leave Bahrain without being arrested. Embassy involvement in this campaign may encourage more workers to step forward, since many are reluctant to deal with local Bahraini authorities alone for fear of being arrested by immigration when attempting to return to their countries of origin.

No reliable figures are currently available on the population of Bahrain's illegal workers; however, the TradeArabia News Service cites figures released in early February 2010 by the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions documenting around 46,000 runaways - approximately 10% of the entire workforce.

This "Easy Exit Strategy" to rid Bahrain of illegal workers immediately follows the release of official figures by the LMRA last week stating that for the first time in its history, Bahrain's expat population outnumbers national citizens at a 51.4% majority, and official economic data indicating that employment opportunities for Bahrainis are declining, attributed partly to its endless supply of cheap labor outsourced from abroad.

Two key questions must be raised in response to this campaign. First: Does this new strategy allow the voluntary deportation of illegal workers who remain indebted to an employer under previous contracts? If workers are forced to remain in Bahrain until their debts have been repaid, they become victims of trafficking when held against their will with no flexibility to escape their debt or to find other means of legal employment to pay back the debt, risking arrest when they attempt to secure another job without a legal work visa. Second: What happens if illegal workers are unable to pay their determined "exit fine" if they utilize this "easy exit strategy?" This is an important point that needs to be considered given the minimal incomes that most migrant workers earn while living in Bahrain legally; incomes for illegal workers are certain to be less given the precarious nature of their status and the leverage employers have (and use) to threaten workers by revealing their status and encouraging their deportation.

But for those who refuse these carrots, alternative sticks are waiting. A recent article from Dubai-based Maktoob Business provides information on the alternative approach that is being employed by the Ministry of Labor to facilitate the deportation of illegal workers who choose to stay in Bahrain. The Ministry of Labor has publicly stated that it plans to deport 20,000 illegal workers through new initiatives that will drive vendors off the streets and detain workers that do not hold appropriate work visas or residency permits.

According to a senior member of Bahrain's Ministry of Labor,
"Tackling illegal workers in Bahrain is a national duty to protect the country's national economy and security. There are many negative repercussions from the presence of massive numbers of illegal foreigners on all aspects and we therefore need to eradicate this dangerous phenomenon through joint action with all ministries."

Nearly 60,000 workers were voluntarily deported or became legalized in an earlier five-month campaign organized by the Bahraini Government which ran until January 31 of 2008, coincidentally in the immediate wake of Bahrain's Anti-Trafficking Law; second in the region behind the United Arab Emirates.

Now that incentives have been presented to illegal workers under a newly announced period of amnesty, workers who refuse to turn themselves in voluntarily will face an unforgiving and radical alternative.

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