Hyper-precarious lives: Bangladeshi migrants on Azad visas in Qatar during the COVID-19 pandemic
A significant proportion of the 400,000 Bangladeshis who live and work in Qatar are on ‘Azad’ (free) visas which are obtained illegally from a sponsor, allowing migrants to work anywhere of their choosing. Debt-financed migration through brokers is widespread, especially among irregular migrants as many come from poor families and lack the qualifications to get skilled jobs. This borrowing places migrants and their families in a highly precarious situation until the debt is repaid, which can take several months.
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses that employed Bangladeshis have ground to a halt, leaving migrants without an income. Bangladeshis work in a variety of low-wage occupations in the Gulf including work in construction and allied industries as well as street vending and selling contraband goods. Many in these jobs have earned barely enough to put aside savings after remitting money home.
The Qatari government has announced two relief measures that potentially benefit Azad visa holders, but neither seems to be effective in alleviating their misery. First, employers have been ordered to continue providing food and housing to workers through the pandemic, but this help was not forthcoming for those on Azad visas. Secondly, the Qatari government has announced that all migrants, irrespective of their legal status, can access health services. Although aware of this, the migrants we spoke to were reluctant to apply due to fears of revealing their irregular status and being deported to Bangladesh. Furthermore, irregular migrants were given no information by either employers or the state on how to keep themselves safe. Instead, they had to rely on texts from their mobile service providers (Q-Tel, Bkash and Vodafone) with information on social distancing and other safety procedures.
Taking a particularly inflexible and bureaucratic approach that is divorced from the reality of irregular migration, the Bangladesh Embassy in Doha is offering assistance only to those who are in Qatar legally. In order to benefit from this offer, migrants must register online and provide their name, telephone number, passport/Qatar ID, and address. Those that have dared ask for help have been callously turned away. Matiur, a 51-year-old construction worker who has been jobless for the last three months, described the harsh treatment he received at the Embassy:
They treated me so bad. It’s more like pushing me out by the shoulder (ghar dhore dhakka diye ber kore deya). They did not even listen to me. They were like ‘go, go, get out’ (jao, jao, ber hou).*
Others have low expectations from the embassy. Lal Miah, a 24-year-old migrant who used to work in a gypsum-board company, had this to say:
Everyone in the Bangladesh embassy is sleeping (Emabssyr sobai ghumaytese). We do not receive any help from them. They eat and sleep and remain busy taking care of themselves (Ora sudhu khay ar ghumay ar nijeder niyei beysto thake). Whenever we went there, they would hardly give us 20 minutes. They do not care about us (Amader kono pattai dey na).
Irregular Bangladeshi migrants on Azad visas are thus caught between the exclusive migration regimes of both countries and the neoliberal working conditions with little security and protection from their own government, the host government, or their employers.
In the circumstances, the support of their compatriots has been a lifeline. Take the case of Majid, a 40-year-old street vendor who has been in Qatar for three years and has not earned anything since the lockdown began. He has no savings and no source of support from the Qatari state or the Bangladeshi embassy in Doha due to his tenuous legal status and the informal nature of work. He is currently staying with a legally resident fellow Bangladeshi migrant who pays for his food. Although he knows about the deadly pandemic, thanks to YouTube videos and his Bangladeshi flatmates, it is the hunger he fears the most. He is terrified that if lockdown is extended, irregular migrants like him will die of starvation before the virus kills them.
The plight of irregular Bangladeshi migrants stranded in Qatar highlights the vulnerability of migrants who are employed in precarious work. The declared intent of the Qatari government has not matched up to the experience of migrants and the Bangladeshi government’s response has elided irregular migrants in its assistance plans. Abandoned by governments and employers that have benefited from their cheap labour, irregular migrants from Bangladesh have been forced to turn to their own social networks for support.
Despite their deepening precarity, the migrants interviewed have decided to remain in Qatar either because they hope that the economy will reopen or because they fear the humiliation of returning home as failures. They also seem to nurture hopes that the Qatari state may eventually regularise their migration status. Majid says the virus outbreak has hit him hard but he wants to stay in Qatar as his prospects in Bangladesh are bleak as he has no property and has outstanding debts:
For me, staying here in Qatar now and returning to Bangladesh are same. I would rather stay here. I heard that the Qatar government might offer us amnesties in the current crisis. And there will be more work opportunities in the construction of many stadiums for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Although I don’t have work and money and I am getting weak for the lack of enough food these days, I must stay here. I cannot just return home empty-handed (Shunnyo haate baari phera jabe na).
The experiences of these migrants must be understood in terms of the unpredictable opportunities and precarities of irregular circular migration in the global economy. On the one hand, it provides an important way of breaking out of poverty despite initial debt burdens. But on the other hand, shocks such as COVID-19 can reverse any gains and plunge the migrants and their families into deeper poverty and vulnerability. Both governments must be made more aware of the realities of their lives to better protect them.
* Five interviews were conducted remotely with Bangladeshi migrants in Qatar in April 2020. To guarantee confidentiality, pseudonyms have been used.
Lamea is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. Her research investigates Bangladeshi migrants’ lived experiences of risk in South Africa focusing on the intersection of risk, mobility, fortune, and autonomy. She is a Visiting Research Student to the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
Priya is Professor of Migration and Development at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on the links between south-south migration and poverty in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Recent projects have related to forced migration, human trafficking and smuggling and the migration industry.