Journalist Mona Kareem with Migrant Rights recently interviewed me about my research. The full interview is linked here, and I’ve pasted the first question and answer below. Note that a fairly lively discussion emerged in the comments on Facebook as well.
In this conversation with Andrew Gardner, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Puget Sound, we discuss migration policies in the Gulf region. For over a decade, Gardner has researched migration in Bahrain and Qatar exploring the structural hardships that immigrants are faced with in the region. He is the author of City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and The Indian Community in Bahrain and editor of Constructing Qatar: Migrant Narratives from the Margins of the Global System.
In 2012, Bahrain claimed to have ‘abolished’ the kafala system, only renaming it. Also lately Qatar made a similar announcement, without offering a detailed plan. Do you expect any positive changes following these promises?
Obviously, the details of Qatar’s plan matter a lot, particularly since we have Bahrain’s experience to gauge these changes against. Note that while I published a book about my research in Bahrain in 2002 and 2003, I never have had the opportunity to return to the island, so I have no firsthand knowledge or understanding of the impact of the changes that were instigated (and as an anthropologist, I value that firsthand knowledge above all else). Nonetheless, the changes to the migration system in Bahrain, hailed as the “abolishing of the kafala,” were more about relocating the right for migrants to change positions from their sponsor to the LMRA. At the time, this could be read as a fairly substantial change to the kafala, but the research I’ve read and the migrants I’ve talked with don’t describe any substantial change in their experiences on the island. Thinking about the region as a whole, in my mind all of this points to a few basic conclusions.
First, we need to recognize that these headlines and declarations of abolishing the kafala are really the prime currency resulting from these proposed, incremental changes, for they allow the Gulf States to broadcast their evolving positionality in a global index of modernity that, thankfully, I suppose, includes EuroAmerican-styled ideas about individual human rights.
Second, I think it is important that we understand the kafala not as a singular and stable thing, but rather as a collection of laws, practices, norms, and traditions that undergird this contemporary migration system. Interwoven with it is a globally-accepted system of legal contracts that really achieve many of the same ends — locking migrants to particular jobs for specific periods of time, for example.
Third, and related: so while aspects of the kafala may be “abolished” in some GCC states in the coming decade, I am not certain that we’ll see any substantial changes in the migrant experience, as these contracts foster the same kind of control that is the critical and criticized facet of the kafala. The barometer by which we evaluate that change in any of the GCC states should be migrants’ experiences.
Have you noticed any shifts in official narratives about migrant issues?
For more of the conversation, continue here.