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Choiceless Departures and Involuntary Immobility: Forced Migration from the Gulf States to Africa

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Millions of the foreign nationals who live and work in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states hail from repressive or conflict-affected countries, and yet their situation rarely features in discussions about forced migration or the hosting of refugees. The result is both a lack of information about the specific protection challenges faced by forced migrants en route to and within the GCC States, and a limited understanding of where these individuals go, and what conditions they face, when they move on.

This new Rights in Exile Policy Paper on Forced Migration from the Gulf States to Africa (#GulfAfricaMigration), begins to address the gap. It documents the experiences of Eritreans who originally travelled to Saudi Arabia after being displaced from Eritrea, but who now find themselves pressured to leave the Gulf, but unable to return to their country of origin. For them, ‘return’ to the Horn of Africa is thus the first move in a series of new migrations and experiences of displacement within and from the continent. Uganda constitutes one of the countries to which they move in search of stability, security and protection. “We have left our country because they would steal our children [and take them] to the military. If a bullet is going to eat that child [gesturing to her son], I will bring him here, not stand and watch them do that. So I brought him here”, said one of female respondents interviewed during the research.

Based on interviews with Eritreans in Kampala, this policy paper outlines the key drivers of this population’s forced departures from Saudi Arabia, including the intensification of the country’s nationalisation programme, and their subsequent journeys to Uganda. The paper further documents the key challenges they face in Kampala, particularly with regards to applying for asylum, but also notes the plight of a sizeable population of Eritreans within the Gulf States, who are both unable to leave and unable to stay there legally, rendering them involuntarily immobile and in a state of extreme precarity. Amidst the extension of attempts to drive out certain low-skilled workers from the GCC States, and the worsening impacts of Covid-19 on employment conditions there, the protection challenges of choiceless departures to Eastern Africa and involuntary immobility will only worsen.

The author of the paper, Dr Georgia Cole noted that “their onward movement from Sudan [first country of asylum], should in no way be seen to invalidate their original claims for persecution, particularly when this has been compounded by the discrimination many of them suffered as Christians in Saudi Arabia”. As one respondent indicated, “we are still refugees. We didn’t get citizenship in Saudi and our government is still creating problems for us”. Another respondent added, “we went to Saudi because we could not wait as refugees in Sudan. We couldn’t wait for money – where was it going to come from?”. In despair, another respondent concluded that "even if we had the full status [in Uganda], there's nothing we can do with it. We left Saudi [Arabia] poor and we stay poor in Kampala. In Kampala, there's no hope for a better tomorrow."

While acknowledging a set of transformative reforms that would improve the situation of Eritrean forced migrants in and from the Gulf States, the paper outlines a number of areas for immediate policy advocacy. These include advocacy around the end of discriminatory forms of taxation within the GCC States that disproportionately target long-term migrants with resident families; strengthening monitoring mechanisms in major migrant-receiving states, such as the GCC States, to ensure that forced migrants and refugees within their labour markets are not returned to countries where they may face persecution or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; and the introduction of alternative legal statuses to regularise the position of forced migrants within Uganda in quicker, more humane and less expensive ways than individualised RSD procedures.

This case study further highlights that the key to assisting forced migrants may not be found in either ‘return to’ or ‘reform of’ the country of origin, particularly in cases where generations of displacement have resulted in significant populations residing (semi-)permanently in third countries. Shifts in employment for Eritreans in Israel, South Sudan and the Gulf States are indeed causing large numbers of these individuals to seek refuge in other African countries as they remain unable and/or unwilling to return to their country of origin. Assistance to these sites of departure and arrival, not the country of origin or traditional spaces of asylum, may prove more beneficial to the forcibly displaced. Basic statistics on return migration can therefore conceal important and widespread patterns of onward movements. Alongside contributing to the potential misallocation of funds and resources for response, this feeds into a misplaced optimism that these ‘return’ movements constitute a durable solution for displaced populations, and takes the pressure off the search for more innovative solutions that respond to their actual movements.

“When we say ‘African solutions for African problems’ this should manifest to protect Africans, and the continent’s body of laws should be interpreted to safeguard and not exclude Africans in-need. This is the least we can expect from the Pan-Africanist and the free movement regimes”, said Achieng Akena, IRRI’s Executive Director.

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