So over the last two-plus years, I’ve been working on a research project with my colleagues Silvia Pessoa and Laura Harkness. We were asked by the Open Society Foundation to conduct a study of labor migrants’ experiences in the justice system in Qatar. We completed our report early in the Fall, and the report, entitled Labour Migrants and Access to Justice in Contemporary Qatar, was published days ago by the London School of Economics‘ Middle East Centre. I traveled to Qatar this week for the “report launch” event — a closed presentation to select ministry officials, scholar/researchers, policymakers, migrant activists, and a few select journalists. The event was hosted by Qatar University on December 9, 2014.
The presentation provided a brief overview of the project and report, with simultaneous translation for the audience. In short, over more than a year, we interviewed 25 labor migrants who, past or present, had active cases in the justice system provided to them by the Qatari state. Our analysis of those interviews and the experiences described therein, combined with another 24 interviews with judges, ministry officials, advocates, and community leaders, allowed us to make a series of policy recommendations to the involved ministries of the Qatari state.
For the launch event, that 30 minute presentation was followed by over an hour of sometimes heated discussion and comment, all of which was under “Chatham House rules” (which means no one can be quoted by name by the journalists present). Let me briefly describe why this conversation was so heated, as it was very interesting to me, and it speaks, I think, to the junction between academia and applied work focused on policymaking.
While there were a diversity of responses to the report, many of the comments and questions I fielded contended that the report didn’t go far enough with its indictment of the migration system and the governance of the Qatari state. Comments, mostly from academics, articulated a desire to address the “root problem” behind the injustices many migrants face. Others pondered the role of other stakeholders in this migration system: business owners, labor brokers, unconcerned government officials, oblivious citizens, and so forth. Many of the discussions that ensued reached for the deep ethical issues at stake in these migrants’ experiences. Interestingly, these various comments arrived from both the Qataris present and the foreign researchers/journalists/activists/consultants there as well.
I was fairly firm in my response to these topics and critique, however. While much of my previous work has been aligned or driven by these ideas, for this project our team had to put our blinders on. For this project, our concern was not with the underlying root problems, the causal forces at work, the ethical implications of this migration system, the other stakeholders involved, or with what an entirely new and better justice system might look like. Instead, in this report we stayed focused on what changes to the existing justice system in Qatar might improve its efficiency, help it better meet its own goals, and thereby improve its responsiveness to real migrants with real problems. The policy recommendations in the report reflect this: they are real, actionable changes that the Department of Labor Relations and the Labor Court can make, and while they may appear incremental, we assert that they will make a significant and discernible difference in the carriage of justice.
As an academic, anthropologist, and scholar, it felt odd to put those blinders on, and to consciously rebut comments and conversations pushing toward the larger issues at stake here. But in reflection, I think that’s part of the nature of applied work, and in retrospect, I feel more confident about our findings as a result of the event.
Regardless, you can read one journalist’s take on the event here.
And, of course, it was great to reconnect with my friends and colleagues at Qatar University!