In response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, people around the world have taken to the streets in huge numbers in solidarity with protesters in America. The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining momentum and the rage has gone global.
Except, it must be said, in the Middle East, where there is a deafening silence despite the fact that changes are needed in the region. This is beyond dispute, as the Arabs are rooted in a history of oppression, and have contributed to and promoted anti-black discrimination, especially in the Gulf States.
Overt racism is evident with entertainers backing up routinely. Such racist entertainment originated in 19th-century America, but is now common in Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and other Arab media production hubs. Racism remains an embedded and largely unquestioned issue.
Such silence on the part of regional governments can also be viewed as an extension of the wider political strategy for their many African domestic workers. These workers often suffer terrible abuse at the hands of their employers in what is nothing less than modern day slavery. Indeed, the Arabic word “abeed” — “slave” — is still used to describe black people in countries from Algeria to Yemen.
In the Middle East, migrant labour has been commodified. Migrants coming from Africa to carry out domestic work are viewed as commodities for import and export rather than human beings with rights who want to offer their services in return for decent wages and conditions.
For example, a Nigerian woman working in Lebanon, Peace Busari, was put on sale on a “Buy & Sell” Facebook page for $1,000 in late April. The post, which included a copy of the woman’s passport, read: “Domestic worker of African citizenship (Nigerian) for sale with a new residency and full legal papers… she’s 30-year old, active and very clean.”
An estimated 250,000 domestic workers live in Lebanon, around 150,000 of whom are Ethiopian, according to government figures. However, thousands more are estimated to be in the country undocumented. Under Lebanon’s kafala (sponsorship) system, common across the Middle East, the legal status of migrant domestic workers is in the hands of their employers.
The dictionary definition of slavery is the activity of legally owning other people who are forced to work for or obey you. The kafala system is modern day slavery, and it’s racist, as it creates a vast power imbalance between the worker and the employer, which facilitates abuse.
What happens in practice is that when a worker arrives in the country, on flights paid for by their prospective employer, they enter a form of bonded labour. Their passport is often taken from them and their salary, working hours and conditions are determined by the employer. At that stage, if the worker isn’t happy about the terms and conditions, there is very little that can be done.
The system has been called “inherently abusive” by Amnesty International and human rights groups have long called for its abolition. Despite horror stories and an average of two workers dying every week – often through suicide – the practice is still prevalent in Lebanon.
In April, Al-Jazeera published a video from a Nigerian woman who said that she was beaten by her employer after it was discovered that she was calling her family back home. According to the report, the mistreatment started after she refused the sexual advances of her employer’s husband. The employers took her phone away and things started to turn nasty. After being hit in the mouth, Temitope scaled the wall from the family’s apartment and ran to a Nigerian activist in Beirut who provided a safe house for her. Despite her treatment, she says that she has to stay in Lebanon as she needs the work.
Even with the high levels of abuse, many migrant domestic workers fear going to the police. With the kafala system linking a worker’s legal status to their employer, escaping from an abusive employer can put them at risk of detention.
Accounts of rampant abuse at the hands of employers abound. In this, the system has too often echoed the history of violence against enslaved black people. Slavery was not formally abolished in Arab Gulf countries until the 1960s, with Saudi Arabia and Yemen among the last states to do so. However, racism is so entrenched in local customs that such countries lack rigorous anti-discrimination laws. Structural discrimination is endemic.
In Libya militias have dominated public life since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Africans crossing the country en route to seek asylum in Europe are targeted and often forced into slavery. One researcher with Human Rights Watch explained Libya’s situation in explicitly racial terms: “Nobody is exempt from ill-treatment, but in my experience… people with white skin or other Arab nationals tend not to stay as long in prisons.”
Despite such blatant abuses for many decades, there is almost no public debate about racism within Arab societies. On the contrary, there is usually outright denial that racism against black people exists. The situation stands in marked contrast to the solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement that we see in other regions and countries around the world.
While racism in the West is, nominally at least, a crime, in the Middle East it tends to be normalised. As black Americans mourn yet another victim of police brutality — which is also rife in Arab states — it is time for the Arab states to step up and throw unjust racist customs and practices aside. Their rage at injustice wherever it is found is the least that we should expect from them. Black Lives Matter not only in America, but also the rest of the world, the Middle East included.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.