Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Understanding Kafala

A great piece on Migrant-Rights detailing the ins and outs of Kafala, a brief history and good resource links on the subject. Pretty comprehensive and informative.


When reading about conditions of migrant workers in the Middle East, you will inevitably come across criticism of the kafala, or sponsorship system. Human rights groups say the migration management system enables exploitation and forced labor—labor extracted by under the threat of penalty, and not offered voluntarily by the worker. The media have likened employment conditions under kafala to “modern-day slavery.” In response, governments in the region have repeatedly promised to abolish or reform the kafala system. Despite these promises, meaningful change in the system always remains just over the horizon, with only slight and halting reforms in a few of the Gulf countries (see sidebar).

Meanwhile, rigid sponsorship laws and regulations continue to define the choices and conditions of the millions of migrant workers in the region. Most of these migrants come from South or Southeast Asian or Africa. The majority are low-wage construction or service-industry workers, or domestic workers who toil under even harsher restrictions with far fewer protections. But even highly-paid and professional workers have suffered due to sponsorship regulations. There is no path to permanent residency or naturalization in Gulf countries, aside from marrying a citizen. All foreign residents are subject to the kafala system.

Clearly, understanding kafala is key to understanding why many migrant workers in the region find themselves in difficult or impossible situations, including conditions that amount to forced labor. But what exactly is the kafala system? Is it the same in every Gulf country? Is it solely to blame for migrant workers’ problems in the region? And why is it so bad, exactly? provides the following guide to the kafala systems that governs labor migration in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), as well as for most workers in Lebanon and Jordan. Note that the kafala system does not govern all migrant workers in Lebanon; for example Syrian workers who have other routes to residency, and in Jordan, where special economic and trade zones are exempted from these restrictions.

The word “kafala” means sponsorship in Arabic.

What most people currently refer to as the kafala or sponsorship system consists of the laws governing migrant workers’ immigration to and legal residence in countries in the Middle East—primarily Gulf countries. While some countries, like Qatar, have an explicit law called the “sponsorship law,” others, such as Kuwait, include these provisions in their residency or immigration laws.

The system gives sponsors a set of legal abilities to control workers: without the employer’s permission, workers cannot change jobs, quit jobs, or leave the country. If a worker leaves a job without permission, the employer has the power to cancel his or her residence visa, automatically turning the worker into an illegal resident in the country. Workers whose employers cancel their residency visas often have to leave the country through deportation proceedings, and many have to spend time behind bars.

Kafala regulation is overseen and enforced by each country’s Ministry of Interior. Workers’ immigration status is treated primarily as a security rather than a labor issue.

Providing an interesting basis for comparison, the word kafala actually also refers to the system under which children are adopted in Islamic countries.  Sharia law does not allow for legal adoption, giving adopted children same the legal status as biological children, but rather allows parents to “sponsor,” or guarantee the welfare of, an orphaned child and assume responsibility for its well-being.

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