In an area where the status of refugees is so politically charged -- mainly due to the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict -- immigrants, migrants and refugees get lumped together at the expense of all of their human and civil rights.
In Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967 cause significant political and social tension. These states, especially Lebanon and Jordan, are wary of being accused of undermining the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. This fear has been a pretext for discrimination against Palestinians in different ways.
In Jordan, Palestinian refugees enjoy Jordanian citizenship -- but they are considered fertile ground for dissent and unrest. This impression continues even though the main protests that rocked Jordan in the last two decades erupted in the East Bank-dominated-south and not in the refugee camps.
Issues like dual Palestinian-Jordanian loyalty remains a subtext for a lot of the political discourse in Jordan. In Lebanon, refuges are denied work status out of the refugee camp pending a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. No attempts were seriously made to try to reconcile the civil rights and political rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
More recently, the influx of Iraqi refugees to Jordan and Syria have fueled fear of spreading conflict to these countries who find themselves under pressure to meet the demands of an increased population with limited resources.
As in the Palestinian issues, but for different reasons, Iraqi refugees have to take up residence either permanently or at least until some calm returns to their torn homeland. Although a distinct problem from that of Palestinian refugees, the majority of Iraqis face tremendous challenges finding housing, schools, and jobs.
Syria has recently relaxed the residency permit status of Iraqis, but Jordan has been faced with significant pressure because of limited resources and jobs and the fear that Iraq will harm internal Jordanian politics.
Once again, political issues eclipse human and civic rights for the new comers. Not enough voices are rising in the Arab World that differentiate between politics and the need to safeguard immigrant and refugees’ basic human rights. That certainly also applies to Sudanese refugees in Egypt and elsewhere. But even there, the country has failed miserably in honoring migrant workers’ rights.
The Palestinian refugees unresolved status has prompted some Arab government's not to sign the international convention on refugees and migrants rights. The fact that Yemen is the only signatory to the agreement to refugees’ rights is testimony to Arab governments sanctioning of abuses against migrant workers and refugees; that includes Asian migrant workers, Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. It even includes Egyptian menial labor in The Gulf and other Arab states.
The result has been a prevalent culture of abuse of migrants that has been integrated into the social norms of these countries. In Gulf states, Asian workers constitute a large amount of the labor force and the number is increasing in countries of the Levant that export home-helpers and drivers from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. Low wages without days off are widespread even among the most charitable families who provide decent accommodation, healthcare and food to maids and babysitters.
Home help is the best scenario for an Asian worker. Physical abuse, starvation, and other punitive measures are also widespread. In some cases, maids escape to their embassies or the police but she ends up losing, more often than not, her chance to stay and work in the country.
There has been a movement in the last decade, mostly prodded by UN agencies and some local nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups to legislate laws to protect migrant workers’ rights. They have had some success. There have been changes in the laws of Jordan. A migrant workers’ rights center was set up in Bahrain.
But we have far to go. At a time when many Arab immigrants in Europe and America protest against discrimination, there have to be more Arab voices protesting about our own treatment of migrant workers.
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