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(Beirut) – International criticism over serious abuses of migrant workers was focused on Qatar during 2013, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2014. The authorities have ignored warnings to reform a legal and regulatory system that facilitates forced labor.

Human Rights Watch said in January 2013 that without major reforms, the tens of thousands of migrant workers building infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup would face exploitation and misery. Further revelations were made in 2013 of appalling living and working conditions and high death rates for migrant workers. But despite mounting international criticism, Qatari authorities have given no indication they intend to carry out needed reforms.

“Qatar is in the spotlight over an issue that blights the Gulf region, and Qatari officials should see this as an opportunity to set a positive example,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Qatar seizes the opportunity, it will win international acclaim.”

In the 667-page world report, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa. Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

Qatar has a population of about 2 million, of whom only 10 percent are Qatari citizens, according to official 2013 statistics. The number of foreign workers is expected to rise further with burgeoning construction demands.

Migrant workers are subject to a labor system that facilitates trafficking and forced labor. In contravention of Qatari law, workers often pay exorbitant recruitment fees and employers confiscate their passports. The kafala (sponsorship) system ties a migrant worker’s legal status to a sponsoring employer, requiring workers to get an exit visa from that sponsor to leave the country. Qatar prohibits migrant workers from unionizing or striking, and they face severe obstacles to seeking redress.

Migrant workers often live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, and many workers complain of excessive working hours and unpaid wages. The UK newspaper The Guardian reported that between June 4 and August 8, 44 Nepalese workers died there, many from cardiac arrest and workplace accidents.

A French professional soccer player, Zahir Belounis, remained trapped in Qatar for more than two years because the team that employed him would not provide an exit visa. Belounis returned home to France in November, six months after Human Rights Watch first raised his case. Many other expatriates remain trapped in Qatar as a result of the exit visa requirement, including three former employees of Al Jazeera Children’s Channel.

Domestic migrant workers, almost all women, are especially vulnerable to abuse. A regional unified contract for domestic workers, expected to be approved in 2014, falls well short of the minimum standards outlined in the International Labour Organization Domestic Workers’ Convention.

Qatar’s record on freedom of expression causes concern. In February, an appeals court affirmed the conviction of a Qatari poet for incitement to overthrow the government over poems critical of Qatar’s then-emir. Draft cybercrime and media laws could stifle free expression.

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