Is the Reform of the Right of Asylum in Qatar For Real?

In September 2018, Qatar’s Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, signed Law No./2018 on Organizing Political Asylum—the first Persian Gulf Arab country to pass legislation recognizing a right to political asylum. The law would prohibit returning a refugee to his country or another where “he fears he will be in danger or subject to persecution.” Human Rights Watch took issue with several features of the new law in regard to freedom of movement and freedom of expression but called it a “huge step forward.”.

Westbay, Doha
Jazeem Hamza/Wikimedia Commons

The timing of the new law was interesting, coming as it did in the midst of the diplomatic offensive by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to isolate Qatar politically and economically. Some nationals of those countries residing in Qatar decided to remain there out of concern that they might face retribution at home after those countries threatened to punish persons who “support” Qatar.

The timing may also have been related to Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup. In recent years Qatar has made conspicuous efforts to address human rights concerns, most recently to help stave off efforts by its Gulf rivals to “co-host” the World Cup. In particular, the plight of over 2 million migrant workers, approximately half of them employed in the construction of stadiums, hotels, and infrastructure, has attracted considerable scrutiny from international labor and human rights organizations. Qatar’s adoption of the political asylum law coincided with passage of Law 13/2018, which, for most migrant workers covered under the country’s labor law, eliminated the requirement to secure from their employers permission to leave the country, namely a certificate “which attests to the amicable end” of their employment contract.

Priority to political cases

The new asylum law, in its title, appears to limit grounds for asylum to political cases, although the text of the law does note that authorities should consider cases of persecution or fear of persecution based on “ethnicity, religion, or affiliation with a specific social group.” In late April, the emir issued a decree specifying categories of persons eligible for asylum, again appearing to limit its potential applicability to cases with clearly political dimensions: human rights defenders; journalists, opinion writers and media workers; persons affiliated with particular political parties, religious sects, or ethnic minorities; defecting government officials.

A second decree allows a person who has secured political asylum status to work except in national security positions, provides a monthly subsidy of at least 3,000 Qatari riyals (US$824; euro 740) until he has employment, and access to health care and tuition-free public education.

A law “on paper only”

But these generous provisions only take effect once the person is granted asylum. Unfortunately for potential asylum seekers, the new law has yet to become operational and thus provide the promised protections and benefits. Article 4 requires the interior minister to create a “Committee for Asylee Affairs,” appoint representatives from the interior and justice ministries and state security agencies, and specify its functions and scope. When in January 2019 a Yemeni national faced threats by Qatari authorities to expel him to Yemen, in explicit violation of the letter of the new law as well as the UN Convention against Torture, officials told the man he could not claim asylum because the committee still had not been set up.

In response to concerned inquiries from abroad, Qatar’s Interior Ministry stayed the expulsion order, but not long afterwards authorities threatened to deport the man to a third country. Qatar’s official National Human Rights Committee told Human Rights Watch at the time that there was no timeline for establishing the required committee, raising questions about the sincerity of the reform.

Hiba Zayadin, Human Rights Watch’s Qatar researcher, told me that she is currently also monitoring the case of an Egyptian national who had been working in the country since 2013. The Search and Follow-up Department of the Interior Ministry recently contacted him and told him he had to leave the country without providing any reason. Because he fears he would be arrested if returned to Egypt he made inquiries about asylum but was told, like the Yemeni man, that he could not request asylum because the state has not yet set up the committee required to implement the law.

Zayadin said the Yemeni man has reported getting calls from the Search and Follow-up Department urging him to leave for a third country. “Neither [he nor the Egyptian] appears to be at risk of imminent deportation,” she said. The Yemeni, however, because he does not have legal residence in Qatar, can’t work or pay rent. He remains “in a precarious position,” she said.

Like so many of Qatar’s many announced reforms, the new asylum law for all its shortcomings remains on paper only, meaning that Qatar still has a lack of meaningful refugee protection issues, in common with other Gulf Arab states.