Jane’s Migration to the Persian Gulf
Jane’s* migration story has always left me puzzled when I think of it. Is migration a sin? Is it a fault to desire a better life for one’s family?
Jane is the firstborn of four children raised solely by their devoted Christian mother. Because of the high competition on the job market in her home country, Kenya, Jane decided to migrate to one of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that were recruiting personnel from East Africa. She needed to help her mother support the education of her siblings and to earn a living for herself.
The motivations for Jane’s migration are very clear from the above introduction: She was migrating for economic and social reasons. Because of high oil prices and growing economies, the GCC countries are leading destinations for temporary migrant workers. There are now perhaps more than 15 million migrant workers in the Persian Gulf.
They comprise over 80 percent of the total populations in some countries, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Jane’s destination country, the United Arab Emirates, is in one of the richest regions of the world. Moreover, advertisements from recruiting agencies promote work in the Gulf states as an attractive option. So Jane and millions of others sign short-term contracts that often tie them to one employer and limit their mobility and their rights.
A Sad Reality
After the joy of traveling for the first time, Jane, at 25, was faced with the sad reality of being in a situation that was completely different from what she had ever known. Her papers were taken from her to eliminate her ability or potential attempt to leave the country before the end of her contract.
Recruited as a nurse back home, Jane became a domestic worker in the United Arab Emirates. She was constantly subjected to exploitation from her “madame,” working long hours and sleeping in the kitchen at night. Jane was also subject to sexual harassment from her “master” and his sons, which her mistress pretended not to notice. When Jane requested to share the room with the young children in order to avoid such situations, the mistress was offended by Jane’s presumptions and suspicions that her husband and sons were capable of committing such acts, especially with a migrant woman.
Does a Migrant Have Any Rights in Some Countries?
The recruitment agency had enticed Jane with the illusion of a rich society where the rights of everyone were respected. Unfortunately, there was no branch of the recruitment agency in the United Arab Emirates where she could report the violation of her rights. Furthermore, there was no system in place to report her employers’ abuses.
Jane’s salvation came after her first three months of work, when she was granted two hours off every Sunday. She looked for a congregation and started attending services.
The theme of the World Day of Prayer 2013—“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me”—resonated deeply with Jane. The church became her haven. During her first service, she was publicly recognized and welcomed into the congregation. She was given information about salvation and the church, and was invited for a cup of tea at the end of the service. For the first time in many months, she was the one not serving but being served.
Week after week, Jane looked forward to her two hours of freedom in which she could attend a church service and to fellowship with other women. She found a home at the church and was able to open up to the women leaders who helped her psychologically. They also explained the country’s culture to her so that she could understand how to “handle” her employers. At the end of her term, the women facilitated her return home. As written in Romans 12:13, the receiving congregation extended hospitality to Jane, a stranger. Its members wore the mark of true Christians. Her receiving local community included women, men and children from across the globe.
The Janes in Our Lives and Congregations
The story of Jane is not very different from the stories of the many migrant women that we see in our own society and church. Do we extend a hand of welcome to them, or are we afraid that they have come to take our jobs? Are we indifferent to them? The world has become such a global village that we could also become migrants some day for various reasons. Therefore, we should have in mind what God says in Deuteronomy 6:10-13: “The people of Israel are made aware that the land they had come to them as a gift from God and they were to remember that they were once aliens.”
Indeed the passage above is very true. Traveling from Paris to Guangzhou, China, on my way to Manila in September 2012, I noticed that the aircraft was full of non-Asians going to China for contracts, business or work. Were they considered migrants as well, or experts? For me, they were also migrants, and their move was a response to one of the many reasons for which people migrate. Yet the concept of migrant often reflects class, race and global power relations. Who is called an international businessman or expatriate, and who is called an economic migrant?
Many receiving countries have provided education and advocacy to facilitate the migration of foreign workers. Although there are laws that are supposed to protect these workers, they are often violated, and the workers are subjected to low wages, discrimination, abuse and other forms of injustice.
Throughout the world, there is still a high demand for action. I am grateful to God that the World Day of Prayer is active in every region of the world and can accompany women to advocate for the rights of migrant workers, particularly migrant women in the GCC countries, while creating awareness about the injustices they face.
“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
Almighty God, we pray and seek justice for the women of the world who have become victims of unequal distribution of resources, women who experience unfair labor practices, who are trafficked in their pursuit for greener pastures, victims of violence and injustices, and the victims of unfair global economic policies.
*Jane’s name has been changed for her protection.
Vivi Akakpo is the executive secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) Women and Migration Programme in Lomé, Togo. She is a member of the World Council of Churches Global Ecumenical Network on Migration and serves on the International Committee for the Fellowship of the Least Coin (ICFLC).