Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are toying with the lives of thousands of Gulf residents as part of their dispute with Qatar, splitting up families and destroying peoples’ livelihoods and education, Amnesty International said today.
The organization’s researchers have interviewed dozens of people whose human rights have been affected by a series of sweeping measures imposed in an arbitrary manner by the three Gulf countries in their dispute with Qatar.
“For potentially thousands of people across the Gulf, the effect of the steps imposed in the wake of this political dispute is suffering, heartbreak and fear,” said James Lynch, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Global Issues Programme, who was in Doha last week.
“These drastic measures are already having a brutal effect, splitting children from parents and husbands from wives. People from across the region – not only from Qatar, but also from the states implementing these measures – risk losing jobs and having their education disrupted. All the states involved in this dispute must ensure their actions do not lead to human rights violations. ”
While Amnesty International takes no view on the political dispute itself, which also involves other countries including Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, the organization is seriously concerned about the impact of some of these steps on the rights to family life and education.
In a fresh blow to freedom of expression in the Gulf, people in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE have also been threatened with harsh punishment if they dare to criticize these measures.
On 5 June all three states ordered Qatari nationals to leave their territories within 14 days, and announced that all of their nationals had to return from Qatar, threatening penalties for anyone who did not return within this timeframe. According to Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee, more than 11,000 nationals of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE live in Qatar.
Many Qataris also live in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE. All are potentially affected by these measures.
People with relations from other Gulf states are particularly at risk. Amnesty International has documented several cases of people cut off from parents, children and spouses as a result.
One Qatari man, who has lived in the UAE with his family for more than 10 years, was refused entry and sent back to Qatar as he tried to return home to Dubai from Doha, just after the measures were announced on 5 June. His wife is an Emirati national and is therefore forbidden from travelling to Qatar, while his children are Qatari nationals and so are required to leave UAE. He is now separated from his family and does not know when he will next see them.
He described to Amnesty International how his wife had pleaded with the duty officer to see her husband one last time. “The officer said, ‘no way – just go back’,” he said.
He told Amnesty International that he fears his employers in the UAE will dismiss him from his job since he cannot return and because of his nationality.
A Saudi Arabian man, who lives in Doha with his Qatari wife, told Amnesty International that he is unable to visit his mother, who is seriously ill in hospital in Saudi Arabia, because if he did he would not be able to return to Qatar to be with his wife and children:
“I go home, I can’t see my wife. I stay here, I can’t see my mum.”
A newly-wed Qatari woman told researchers she had been in the process of moving to Bahrain to live with her husband, a Bahraini national, when the measures took force.
“I was so happy to marry last year… Before the ban, while I was looking for a job in Bahrain I would go there every weekend, to see my husband, my family, my house. When they did this, how could they not think of the people?”
Amnesty International also interviewed several Qatari students concerned they could not continue their education in the UAE and Bahrain. One student said all her classes in the UAE for the rest of the year had been cancelled with immediate effect.
A state’s power to regulate and restrict immigration is constrained by international human rights law, and differences in treatment between different categories of non-citizens can only be justified if they are necessary to achieve a legitimate objective. Arbitrarily splitting up families as part of immigration policies violates the right to family life.
Ban on expressing “sympathy”
Residents in Saudi Arabia, UAE or Bahrain have been warned they could face harsh penalties if they make comments in support of Qatar.
Citing existing, flawed legal provisions, the UAE’s general prosecutor has announced that people who express “sympathy” for Qatar could face up to 15 years in jail; while state-controlled Saudi Arabian media stated that such expression could be considered a cybercrime offence. The Bahraini Ministry of Interior has also threatened anyone who shows “sympathy or favoritism” to the Qatari authorities either on or off line, with up to five years in prison and a fine under the Penal Code.
“These statements from governments with a record of repressing peaceful expression are a flagrant attempt to silence criticism of these arbitrary policies. Prosecuting anyone on this basis would be a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression. No one should be punished for peacefully expressing their views or criticizing a government decision,” said James Lynch.
Concerns over migrant workers in Saudi Arabia
There are also concerns that migrant workers employed by Qatari nationals to look after their properties in Saudi Arabia may find themselves stranded, unable to return to Qatar where they have residence permits – and becoming undocumented in the process, at risk of exploitation or arrest and deportation. Amnesty International has spoken to workers in this situation, who have little information about what might happen to them.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states must protect any workers employed by Qatari nationals, including by facilitating the safe return of those who wish to return to their home countries or assisting those who wish to return to Qatar.
“Political disputes between states must be handled in a manner that respects human rights. There can be no justification for tearing families apart, suppressing peaceful expression, and leaving migrant workers abandoned and at risk. Arbitrary measures should be suspended immediately,” said James Lynch.