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(Beirut) – Qatar should immediately abolish its exit visa requirements, which expose migrant workers to the risk of exploitation and abuse. The exit visa system can prevent foreigners from leaving the country merely on the say-so of a current or former employer. The case of a French professional footballer who is unable to leave Qatar illustrates how the exit visa system can be used against migrant workers in disputes with their employers. Zahir Belounis, who played for the Al Jaish team, is pursuing a claim for unpaid wages in the Qatari courts. He told Human Rights Watch that his former employers have insisted that he drop his claim or they will not issue him the exit visa he must produce to leave Qatar.

“The Qatari authorities have set up a system that can effectively allow employers to legally hold their current and former workers to a form of ransom,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “People should be basically free to leave any country. The Qatari authorities already have the power to stop people fleeing to avoid justice, so there is no reason they should give employers the power to keep their employees in Qatar.”

Human Rights Watch has documented how shortcomings in Qatar’s legal and regulatory framework are responsible for the abuse and exploitation of Qatar’s non-citizen workforce, who constitute over 85 percent of the country’s population of 1.9 million. The system can make even well-paid, professional migrant workers, such as Belounis, vulnerable to employer abuses. But many of those at risk of abuse are migrant workers from south Asia in poorly paid work such as construction, and particularly women employed as domestic servants.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the only Gulf Cooperative Council states with an exit visa system. In June 2010, Belounis signed a five-year contract with Al Jaish following which, he told Human Rights Watch, he was made the team’s captain and helped it secure promotion to Qatar’s first division. In August 2011, new team managers told him he was not needed and he was transferred to Al Markhya, a second-division team. He claims that Al Markhya stopped paying his wages in May 2012, and that Al Jaish reneged on a verbal agreement to make up the shortfall between his Al Markhya pay and the wage agreed upon when he signed his 5-year contract in 2010.

In February 2013, Belounis filed a case for unpaid wages and damages for loss of earnings against Al Jaish. Since then, he told Human Rights Watch, his former employers at Al Jaish have told him that they will not issue him or his wife and two young daughters the exit visas they need to leave Qatar unless he drops his claim. The judge hearing Belounis’s case postponed the last hearing on May 23 after Al Jaish changed its lawyer. The next hearing is scheduled for June 13.

Law No. 4 of 2009 regulates the entry and exit of expatriates in Qatar and their residence and sponsorship. It is Qatar’s version of the kafala or sponsorship system, forms of which regulate the residence and employment of expatriate workers across the Gulf region. All expatriate workers in Qatar and some visitors require a residence permit, which is provided by a resident sponsor, who can be an employer, a father of the visitor or the person inviting a visitor on his or her sponsorship.

However, resident sponsors can also effectively prevent the people sponsored from leaving Qatar. Article 18 states that “other than women sponsored by the father and the minors and visitors visiting the state for no longer than 30 days, expatriates may not leave the state temporarily or permanently unless they provide an exit permit issued by the Residence Sponsor.”

Residence sponsors do not need to justify their failure to provide an exit permit. The onus is on the expatriate either to find another exit sponsor, who must be a Qatari national, or to provide a certificate that there are no outstanding legal claims against the person trying to leave 15 days after publishing a notice in two daily newspapers. The system appears to have no valid justification, Human Rights Watch said. The exit visa regime is not necessary to prevent foreigners fleeing court cases in Qatar, as Qatar’s Interior Ministry has separate powers to impose travel bans on non-citizens facing criminal charges or civil claims in its courts. 

Human Rights Watch also has concerns over the seemingly arbitrary manner in which Qatar imposes these travel bans. Qatari authorities have subjected Mahmoud Bouneb, Malika Alouane, and Haitham Qudaih, all foreign nationals formerly employed by the Al Jazeera Children’s Channel (AJCC), to travel bans since September 27, 2011, without notifying them officially or advising them of the legal basis for the bans or their right of appeal.

The AJCC is majority owned by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, which the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his wife, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, set up in 1995. The three foreign workers were informed that their former employee had accused them of financial offenses in October 2011, but they were not aware of any formal criminal investigation until charges were filed against them in December 2012.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the Qatari authorities on March 14 to seek clarification of the legal basis for these travel bans, what steps if any the authorities had taken to notify the individuals concerned and what remedies exist for them to challenge or overturn their travel bans. The authorities have not responded. Separate investigations conducted by the Qatar National Audit Bureau and the auditors Ernst and Young both concluded in 2012 that no grounds existed for criminal prosecutions. The next hearing in their case is scheduled for June 18.

The right to leave any country is an essential component of the right to free movement, guaranteed under article 27 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and article 5(ii) of the International Convention Against the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CERD). Qatar is party to both treaties.

The CERD Committee has made it clear that this right applies to citizens and non-citizens without distinction. Commenting on permissible restrictions on the right to free movement, the UN Human Rights Committee has asserted that restrictive measures “must conform to the principle of proportionality; they must be appropriate to achieve their protective function; they must be the least intrusive instrument amongst those which might achieve the desired result; and they must be proportionate to the interest to be protected.”

The Human Rights Committee has also stated that the application of restrictions “should use precise criteria and may not confer unfettered discretion on those charged with their execution.” The Qatar visa system fails to meet any of these criteria.

“The Qatari authorities need to call time on this abusive system,” Whitson said. “The exit visa system unfairly shackles foreign workers to their Qatari employers, opening them up to unfair treatment and exploitation.”

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