The Kafala system: African Migrant Women Unprotected in the Middle of a Pandemic

Anti-blackness has been defined by scholars referring to a global system rooted in the dehumanization of black bodies. It is what it means to be in a world where black people are not considered humans or granted the courtesy of a dignified existence. The Kafala system operating as a sponsorship system of migrant workers interested in working in construction and domestic sectors in the  Gulf Cooperation Council member states is an anti-blackness empire, built over the years on the struggle of black and brown workers from Africa and part of Asia to make a living out of domestic and construction work. 

It all started in the 1950s with the rapid economic boom from the discovery of oil. Several middle east countries hired foreign workers to accelerate the booming production. The Kafala system was set up as an employment framework within the Persian Gulf countries (Bahrain, Kuwait,  Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) where citizens or companies sponsor migrant workers who want to be employed and reside in the country. The sponsor controls the migrant worker. Without their permission, the worker cannot leave their job or change jobs as they can be deported if they question any terms of the contract. According to this article on human trafficking search, employers have been known to withdraw payments, confiscate passports, and engage in physical and sexual violence 

Migrant women from the Gambia outside the country’s embassy in Beirut

Over the years, the kafala system became an exploitive and slave labor system with endless abuse, immense control, and violation of human rights due to the power the sponsor held over the workers. Many migrant workers remained vulnerable under inhumane work conditions with fear of arrest, unpaid wages, deportation. Mostly scared because if the migrant worker decides to leave the workplace without the employer’s written consent, they might be charged with absconding, which is a criminal offense  regardless of either they left for abuse or not ( read more about it here )

Furthermore, just like everything is gendered, the kafala system has become an enormous sex trafficking empire with extreme sexual violence.  This article chronicles the stories of Ethiopian and Kenyan women who went through sexual harassment, being beaten, and yet unable to leave. Moreover, that was in 2018.  One could wonder how do we exist in a world with such exploitative migration laws? Many civil society organizations have tried to dismantle the Kafala system or reform it but still in vain due to the unequal power dynamics within the GCC countries and sending countries.

This year 2020 has been a year of tragedies. August was a month of random fires. We all witnessed a significant part of Beirut blow into pieces by an explosion preceded by a fire. The most untold story is how that tragedy affected migrant women, domestic workers. On top of most being denied primary health care, some lost their jobs and are in the streets.

I chatted with Lovette Jallow, whose organization repatriated about Thirty-eight women back to the Gambia from Lebanon. Lovette, the founder of Action Four Humanity, took up the initiative to get the women to safety after they reached out to her. . The women opened up about their despair as almost everyone’s life in Beirut collapsed. The explosion which destroyed so many properties will take years for Lebanon to recover. So Lovette’s organization organized the entire repatriation, which consisted of getting the 38 women to Senegal who then entered the Gambia via road. The organization also covered their income losses by giving them funds to start a new life in The Gambia.

While chatting with Lovette, I kept wondering what Africans have done to have governments who don’t care about their safety. Is it always that civil society should step in to do the right thing? How can embassies in the Middle East ask people who just lost everything on top of the horrible labor conditions to pay to be repatriated?

Migrant women from Ivory Coast seeking repatriation in Beirut

Warsan Shire said that no one leaves unless home is the mouth of a shark, and we cannot overlook the political and economic situations that breed and sustain these harmful systems. The women go through victim-blaming for their misery, for daring to desire and go after a better life. No one leaves their motherland willingly to be sex trafficked or endure sexual violence as a domestic worker. 

The kafala system has been built on that despair of  Africans, in particular, African women’s misery.  It has built itself on the exploitation of low-income countries to the point of their inability to give their citizens a simple minimum life.

We cannot ignore African women’s every day realities across different countries and the effects of political patriarchy. As both the second citizens and the breadwinners in most situations, women are victims of the ongoing economic exploitation; it gets particular to black and brown women. As I write this, Kenyan and Ethiopian migrant workers women are in Beirut’s streets, demanding to be taken back to their home countries. It’s been weeks, maybe another Lovette will show up for them and do what our governments should be doing.


Photos by Anti-Racism Movement Lebanon 


Judicaelle Irakoze is a Burundian radical feminist. She is a storyteller, passionate with articulating the experiences of African women.

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