Fahad Desmukh: Spare us Bahrain's sudden 'concern' for its Asian expat workers
Published on guardian.co.uk
by Fahad Desmukh 18 June 2011
Since the Bahraini regime launched its crackdown on protesters in March, the government and its apologists have tried to justify state brutality by pointing to violence inflicted upon expatriate labourers – supposedly at the hands of protesters.
"Poor, innocent, Asian expats" is how they are now described. But just a few months ago there was little concern at a national level about the abuse of migrant workers. They represent 54% of Bahrain's resident population, and as in the neighbouring Gulf monarchies, they constitute the bulk of the workforce. Most are from south Asia, and they are arguably the most marginalised community in the country.
Now their welfare has suddenly become a matter of concern for the regime and its apologists. After the start of the crackdown, the foreign minister scurried between the different expatriate community clubs and embassies, hailing the "strong relations bonding" them to the kingdom of Bahrain. Local state-run television suddenly started broadcasting news bulletins in Hindi, Urdu and Tagalog.
In July 2006, a policeman rang my doorbell and gave me a letter instructing me to present myself to Bahrain's notorious National Security Agency the next morning.
I was interrogated by two officers who took on exaggerated and almost comical versions of good cop/bad cop. They did not seem to be aware of my blog but they had certainly been keeping tabs of who I had been meeting and who I was speaking to on the phone. They wanted to know why I had been meeting foreign journalists and academic researchers who were visiting Bahrain.
"This envelope has everything about your past, your present, and your future, so you had better tell me everything you know!" barked the "bad cop" pointing towards a brown envelope on the desk.
After a few hours I was told I could leave "for now" but that I would be called back again in a few weeks when I would have to "really reveal everything".
I left Bahrain two weeks later on an already scheduled trip. When I returned, I was told by the immigration officer at the Bahrain airport that I was no longer allowed to enter the country, on orders from the interior ministry. I have been living in Pakistan since then.
As an expatriate in Bahrain you can earn some money and have a decent life, as long as you are willing to abdicate your right to comment on what is happening around you. You exist as an alien no matter how long you have lived there.
Even today, despite recent labour laws allowing migrant workers to join unions, few of them do so for fear of landing in trouble with their employers and being deported.
But the two groups – expatriate workers and working-class Bahrainis – must stop falling for government propaganda pitting them against each other, and recognise their common exploiter. Until that happens, neither group can expect their conditions to significantly improve.