The Tragedy of Iqama

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

It’s tragic that in the year 2010, modern day slavery is still alive and well, sucking the life out of anyone that is destitute and lacks the ability to rise above their circumstances. We see it in the poorest of nations where the rich and powerful clearly hold the upper hand. However, it also can affect wealthy and middle-class people living in rich nations who must grapple with it just as their poorer brethren must.

Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East, where the oil pumps black gold day in and day out–lining the pockets of the wealthiest of the wealthy. The side effect of all that glittering oil is the reliance of a largely foreign work force to handle the jobs that the wealthy class is unwilling to do.

Skilled and unskilled workers from all over the world descend upon the Middle East in droves, as if the California Gold Rush has been resurrected. The promise of high salaries and a tax-free economy is all it takes to bring planeloads of foreign workers to the Middle East. Sometimes, the move pays off and an expatriate can earn a handsome living and have a little bit extra to send back to their family at home. However, for many, the dream of as easier life turns into a nightmare before they can even blink their eyes.

The problem lies in the way in which foreign laborers are permitted to work in many countries of the Middle East. Most of the wealthy nations of the Gulf have a sponsorship system in effect. The sponsorship system means that a citizen of the country you want to reside in must put his name on all of your paperwork, including your visa and residency card. Without what is known as the “Iqama”, a foreign worker will not only be arrested but immediately deported out of the country they have fought so hard to live in. What is worse is that many unscrupulous sponsors prey on the person whom they are sponsoring–insisting on high payments to maintain the sponsorship, or special favors.

For a young person, maintaining sponsorship is a manageable feat so long as he can pay the sponsor what he demands. However for an older person, who does not have the ability to work as he once did, he is at the mercy of the sponsor. “I don’t know what the future holds for me,” laments a 77-year-old Pakistani laborer who works in a tailor shop in Kuwait. He refuses to give his name for fear of getting in trouble since his Iqama has long since expired.

“I have no family to turn to in Pakistan and even less in Kuwait. Without a job, my days are numbered.” He has spent 50 years in Kuwait and now lives every day looking over his shoulder fearing that he will be arrested at any moment. He supplements his meager wages by collecting recyclables out of dumpsters situated in some of Kuwait’s poshest neighborhoods. For him, all of his years of labor have counted for nothing, as there is no social security system in effect for non-Kuwaitis.

For many elderly expatriates, the system of Iqama prevents them from moving forward and keeps a tight noose around their necks–putting them at the complete mercy of their sponsor who can relinquish the sponsorship at any time and for whatever reason, thus incapacitating a living soul from earning a livelihood. And for the young expatriates it’s only a matter of time before the tragedy of Iqama casts its’ dark shadow on them as well. 


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