Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility Position 5: The Lure of the Middle East: Must We Go?

Position 5: The Lure of the Middle East: Must We Go?

The Lure of the Middle East: Must We Go?

By Martha Irene Mwende Wanjuki

Recently, there has been a rise in the number of semi-skilled and unskilled Kenyans migrating to the Middle East, particularly Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). In a report by the Labour and Social Welfare Committee, 80,000 Kenyans are working and living in Saudi Arabia alone. Most of them are serving there as domestic labourers.

I do not think there is a problem with these statistics. I am also a hardworking Kenyan and believe in moving in the search for new opportunities and for new ways of making a living. However, I have a big problem with the documented  mistreatment of Kenyan migrant workers in those countries. A few weeks ago, I watched a video of a young Kenyan woman who had  left behind a two-month-old baby to go to the Middle East to work as a domestic servant and who had been denigrated by her employer to such an extent that she was breastfeeding his puppies, and my heart sank.

Many families have been crying out to the government for help inbringing their daughters, sisters, or mothers back home from the Middle East due to forms of mistreatment that were not dissimilar to the experiences that that young mother was going through. Unfortunately, some have only received corpses, while others have been treated to news to the effect that their loved ones had died under mysterious circumstanes. Yet, even so, we have continued to hear of flights to Saudi Arabia with women filled with hope and ambitions. And this brings us to the critical question that we must all confront: Must we go? The simple answer is, No: we do not have to go because the government can create opportunities here in Kenya that are comparable to those that are available in the Middle East. Equally importantly, the mistreatment of our women in the Middle East threatens our dignity as a nation.

Between 2019 and 2021, the Labour and Social Welfare Committee reported that 90 domestic workers had died in Middle Eastern countries in the course of that period. Most of them, according to the report, hadpassed away due to violations of their rights and other forms of mistreatment. Furthermore, within the same period, there had been 1,908 calls of distress whereby some of  the workers hadrequestedurgent assistance against such mistreatment. These are statistics from a publication of a government committee. Yet, unfortunately, the parliamentary publication only highlights the sad situations and leaves it at that. Nowhere in the report does it provide solutions or action-based mitigation in respect of the atrocities. For me, this is enough reason to believe that the government is partially responsible for the mistreatment of its migrant workers.

When the video of the Kenyan woman who was shown breastfeeding dogs in the home of her employer in the Middle East went viral, the Secretary General of the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU), Mr Francis Atwoli, did not say much except that the employment agencies responsible for hiring and transporting Kenyan women to the Middle East to work as domestic servants should be banned. However, he did make a statement that means everything if only everyone would listen to it. He said that the mistreatment to which the women concerned are routinely subjected is an indirect form of slavery and that it is better for us to stay here in our country than to sacrifice our dignity by taking up indecent jobs in the gulf countries. I reflected on this statement for quite some time, and it made a lot of sense to me. There is no doubt that it is far much better to suffer in your own country than to do so in a foreign land doing unthinkable tasks. And so, I believe we do not have to go!

There is a saying to the effect that necessity is the mother of invention, and the recent unemployment risein Kenya has caused youths to begin to  apply their creativity in innovating opportunities to make a living. Every time I walk the streets of Nakuru and Nairobi I cannot stop applauding the levels of innovation that ordinary Kenyans in those and other parts of the country have achieved based on the businesses I see. I have met young women selling snacks and men carrying luggage for a living. These may not sound like decent jobs, but they feed their families and make a living out of them. Everyone can find something to do with a little change of mindset and willingness to take the “road not taken by many”, as mentioned in Robert Frost’s poem of the same name.

The reason why our youths oftentimes leave the country to venture out into other parts of the world is taht they want to take the smoother path instead of the grassy one. And, in the end, the smooth path oftentimes leads them into mistreatment and exploitation, so that they are left making distress calls and promising to make better choices if given another chance. It so happens that migrating to the Middle East is an easier route most people take to make ends meet. I do not blame them; I uplaud their bravery and determination in life. However, I think that there is a need to consider the bigger picture that lies in the consequences of such decisions. That path should be the last resolution after a person has exhausted all other alternatives. But this is not the case for most migrant workers because some go so far as dropping out of school to chase the “easy” money. I am of the view that we do not necessarily have to become international migrant workers in order for us to make a living. We do not have to go!

Philippinos by are by far the largest population of migrant workers in the Middle East, and they have also had their fair share of mistreatment scandals. However, unlike Kenya, the government the government of the Phillipines has in the past had to ban the deployment of migrant domestic workers to the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, as a way of enforcing remedial measures to the situation. For example,in the recent past, the government temporarily suspended the deployment of its workers to Saudi Arabia following a series of cases of violations of their rights. This paints a picture of a government that values its citizens’ welfare and life. It shows that the govenment upholds the dignity of its citizens and will not let them be reduced to slaves in a foreign land. Our country needs to take the same direction so as to protect our young women fromthe  mistreatment and frequent deaths we have been witnessing in recent times. The Philippine government intends to lift the ban this November only becasue its officials and those of Saudi Arabia have agreed to reforms allowing for close monitoring of the migrant workers. Subsequent to the negotiations, the Workers’ Secretary in the country, Susan Ople, announced that Saudi Arabia had committed itself to collaborating with the Phillipnes on the matter and would henceforth support the rights of Philippino migrant workers as required by international law.

In Kenya, ont the other hand, the government has not made much effort as a collective unit. Rather, it has been left to a few philanthropists and organizations to take onthe  role of philanthropists with respect to the workers who make distress calls. It is high time we took the initiative as a country and upheld the slogan, “We do not have to go until the necessary reforms are out in place!”

The newly formed government has started well. The Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Alfred Mutua, has made an official trip to Saudi Arabia following a talk with Mr Khalid Abdullah, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Kenya. Earlier, Mutua had met with the employment agencies responsible for the recruiting and transportation of migrant workers to the Middle East and had discussed the matter with them. The agenda of the meeting was to find out what might be done to ensure the  welfare of Kenyan workers in foreign countries. Could this a sign of a new dawn for Kenya, especially for the people living in foreign countries as migrant workers? I am not sure, but it does not hurt to hope. I pray and hope that the government will take action required to improvethe wellbeing of Kenyans who venture abroad in search of greener pastures. After all, as John Locke observes in his Two Treatises of Government, the existence of government is throughthe people’s consent to protect their rights and act for the common good of the society. The government is, above all eslse, obligated to protect its citizens, including migrant workers, within and outside the borders, against all possible dangers.

As I have said herein, it does no harm to hope, but I continue to maintain that,  until action is taken, we do not have to go!  It behooves us to remain in our country and engage in other productive activities until we are assured that the problem has been corrected. We would rather have one bird in our hands while in our country than chase twobirds  inthe Middle East as long as that part of the world continues to be so unpredictable.

Please do not take me wrong. I have nothing personal against the Middle East countries and the migrant workers who go there in search of opportunities to earn a living. What I am against is the blatant mistreatment and violation of Kenyan workers’ rights. This is why I will continue to recommend action – so that our workers can be safe in those countries. My problem with us is that, as things stand now, all we have is people talking and expressing concerns without intervening in the situation as much as we should.

There are many ways to kill a rat, and migrating to the Middle East is only one. There is not a day that passes nowadays that I do not find myself praying for the migrant workers’ safety and hoping that a day will come when we will not have to worry about their welfare. I am always hoping against hope that the government will find it in its heart to act on their plight as we we here at home continue to look foralternative ways of making ends meet. Until that day comes, in my view, we do not have to go!

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