A dead migrant worker dies many times and has many killers

Simply documenting—however exhaustively—the numbers and conditions under which the deaths of migrant workers occur is deliberately, cleverly, telling a half story

Six thousand five hundred migrant workers are documented to have died in Qatar in the build-up to the recently concluded 2022 World Cup.  Since the time of the award to host the tournament in 2011, estimates show that over 6500 people especially from the Indian subcontinent, Asia and a percentage from Africa died from various tournament-related construction projects.  For this reason, Qatar was on the spot for its mistreatment of migrant workers—that ended in these many deaths.  In the final three months to the kick-off of the tournament (about July-October), Qatar came under even more intense scrutiny over several other things, mostly of a cultural nature by an exclusively western media fraternity. Sadly, clumsily, most of these criticisms were crafted in an explicitly orientalist, Islamophobic fashion—as they sought to question the cultures and traditions of Qataris, and Muslims in general.  Something like, “how barbaric and backward could they be in this 21st century?” There were threats to boycott the tournament and many football lovers in Europe and North America—turned cultural and pro-migrant activists—never watched the tournament.  While Middle Easterners and football lovers from elsewhere in the world were clearly unbothered by protests and contestations from the western world (as evident in full stadiums and a vibrant cultural life in-between and after games), subaltern intellectuals found themselves in a position that demanded upon them to craft sensible responses to these criticisms.  It is not that the pro-Migrant criticisms were bereft of veracity, but there was an acute sense of sanctimoniousness on the part of our western interlocutors, that reeked of ‘rank hypocrisy’ as British media personality Pius Morgan described them.

The cultural conversation about Qatar’s moral and constitutional hue—specifically the issues of sexual minorities—is outside the scope of this essay.  This essay is rather focused on the memoirs, life-stories, and general biographies of migrant workers, especially those coming from East Africa, Horn of Africa and Central Africa, with whose world I’m more familiar.  My intention is not to condone Qatar’s ill-treatment of workers; my contention rather is that simply documenting—however exhaustively—the numbers and conditions under which these deaths occur is deliberately, cleverly, telling a half story.  There are close, un-ignorable connections between their final deaths in Qatar to (a) the journeys and (b) conditions that prompted their movement (thus the label, “migrant workers,” and not expatriates).  And then their eventual death. Plotting these journeys and dots meticulously requires not just journalistic or academic rigour, but also honesty and empathy.  It needs to be understood and acknowledged that a migrant worker dies many times, and has many killers: they die in their home countries—where they are structurally, violently uprooted—they then die on the clearly abusive journeys to either Europe or the Middle East (even if these journeys are by aircraft), and then, they finally die (and could be buried or given chance to remain alive) at their workstations at the final destination.  At this final moment of deaths—which is the crowning of their dehumanisation—their bodies could be rendered lifeless and immersed into the ground. But they would have died many times before this moment.

Please note that in these many moments of morbidity (dehumanisation, enslavement, exploitation, abuse, border restrictions, etc.) the killer is not one person or one entity, but many hard-hearted people from different places, using different methodologies, all of them driven by a singular motive: exploitation, extraction.  While some killers are structural and fetishized—tactfully hidden from public view—and could even appear benevolent towards their victims, they are real and dangerous just like those who are openly extractive and violent such as the enslavers enroute or the profiteers and funders of violent conflict on the African continent.

Depending on the perpetrator’s point of contact with the migrant (who begins as a native), the killers are driven by two extractive ambitions: (a) exploitation of labour of the migrant, and (b) extraction of the resources of the migrant either freely or cheaply.  If found in their homelands on the African continent, the resources of the native have to be exploited freely, cheaply, often violently, which often ends in the dispossession of the native turning them into migrants. (Again, please note that not all dispossession is openly violent. And that is the ugly and more difficult trick: because this violence is fetishized, structural, to the point that the victim could even be compensated at market rates).  If found enroute, their bodies become the target, which is the same thing if the contact is made in the final destinations.  Thus, all of these ugly moments of perpetrator-victim encounter, and the many times of deaths have to be accounted for in narrating the troubled lives of the dead migrant worker.


At least since 2010, not a month goes by without Kampala’s social and mainstream media broadcasting a video of a migrant labourer in the Middle East either being tortured by their often-abusive employers, or ailing from a work-related condition that their employers refused to attend to.  In some even more grim cases, videos are announcing the death of a colleague who died under unclear circumstances, while in other cases they feature direct appeals for help in the form of evacuation.  This condition became even more intense in the past three years.  And against this ill-treatment of migrant/domestic workers in the Middle East, the Ugandan opposition has made it their assignment to evacuate some of these clearly ill-treated persons back to Uganda.  But while 50 of them would be entering the country through Uganda’s only international airport, at Entebbe, they will be crossing paths with another 500 that is in the lobby waiting for boarding heading to the same destination where the 50 would be coming from. Why is this so?  And what does this tell us?  So, the president of the major opposition party in the country, the National Unity Platform (NUP), Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, is often challenged with the question: after you have evacuated these girls, successfully returned them to their homeland, then what is the promise of return? Because if they left because of the material conditions in which they painstakingly eked their livelihood in, what then is good for their return? Consider the fact that over 24,000 Ugandans seek for jobs in the Middle East every year—and this has been happening for the last 10 years! But this is not Mr Robert Kyagulanyi’s problem to solve, it is rather a regional problem, it is the African condition courtesy of Euro-America’s penchant for accumulation by dispossession.

What you are witnessing here is a condition only succinctly summarised in the African adage, “binsobede eka ne mukibira,” which is Luganda for, loosely, life has become difficult both at home and in the woods, or the English equivalent, “caught between a rock and hard place.” There is no place to turn for the African native/immigrant; they are surrounded. They are doomed if they stay on the continent, and also doomed if they decide to leave the continent.  Erudite, Pan-Africanist, Dr Abdul-Raheem Tajudeen summarised this condition well when keynoting at conference in Nairobi.  He would open his speech by turning our present sensibilities about slavery and slave trade upside down:  if a ship docked at Mombasa Port, clearly marked, “Taking slaves to America and Europe,” we’ll all be shocked by the long quest of Africans pushing and shoving to get onto that ship—towards slavery.’ This statement by the consummate Pan-Africanist drew a great deal of mirthless laughter from the audience, signalling to the outright approval of what Tajudeen had said.  But why would this be true in independent countries with innumerable programmes towards uplifting their people from penury and misery?


During my feildwork as a graduate student in Somaliland in 2015, I vividly recall witnessing an epidemic where youngsters determined to make the dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean through Libya into Europe in search of a better life. With the slave shops in Libya being well-publicised, and the death of migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, there had been campaigns inside Somaliland (and almost all of the Somali territories) urging young men and women to stop risking these long and arduous journeys to Europe and North America.  Tahrib as the phenomena is called was a major talking point in Hargeisa, and remains to this day. Diaspora returnees coming from Europe or North America who had only  recently returned to Somaliland or were simply visiting pleaded with their local compatriots not to make these journeys because the grass was not greener in Europe or the Middle East, and not worthy the trauma and sacrifice on the high seas. These enthusiastic and well-meaning returnees where often met with a threefold solid response: (a) a direct question, “what else is left for me here?” (b) a rhetoric question, “how come you made it?” and (c) a philosophical statement, “every dog has his day.”  Thus, Tahrib became unstoppable in the sense that an acute feeling of precarity, absence and lack in the homeland (of opportunities, futures, growth, certainty), was muted by the appearance of the returnees.  The returnees who normally appeared fairly dressed, well-fed, well-spoken, with fancier electronic gadgets, and patronised the fairly more affluent hangouts could not convince their homebred listeners that the grass wasn’t greener on the other side. (For an extended discussion of this sense of loss, see Nimo-Ilhan Ali, wonderfully researched book, Going on Tahrib).

The picture that emerges is not that Africans simply love going to Europe, the Middle East or North America, to enjoy the beautiful lifestyles or would rather work abroad than at home.  Despite a strong nomadic lifestyle in some parts of the continent, no African (which is true of all humans) fancies leaving their families behind (their beautiful wives and children), their social networks, their eco-system of friendships and care, brave the embarrassment of learning new traditions and languages in old age, if it were not for hostile conditions at home.  No one is content to brave the blinding racism in the white-majority countries including in the Middle East.  In all fairness—and I do not say this out of sheer Pan-Africanism—Africa is heavenly bliss compared to the rest of the world.  It is not just the beautiful weather, a gentle all year-round sunshine or the abundant natural and marine resources. It is not just the people and their happy traditions—who are still fairly untouched by capitalist individualism and corruptions. It is all of those and the fact one can live in absolute harmony with the environment.  See, even with the violence and aggressiveness of the GMO industry on the continent, most foods are still organic, and their taste remains unmatched. To live this bliss for the extremely cold winters, blazing summers, and the cold and hot racism of Europe or the Middle East, without compulsion, would be lunacy. But the conditions at home—of precarity, lack and absence—make it extremely difficult for Africans to stay home.

The easy, often regurgitated explanation is that Africans, especially their leaders have been unable to transform their God-given resources into meaningful investments for the future.  Claims of African corruption, African laziness, Africans’ failure to build institutions inundate most literature on and about African poverty and precarity.  There is a new group of ‘intellectuals of empire’, in media, academia and general commentary building entire careers on clowning and stereotyping the African condition.  They are obsessed with studying and making connections between African poverty, precarity, and migration to African leaderships. Thus, books, news bulletins and analyses on “African authoritarianism”, “African monsters” (and its allegedly beautiful opposite, democracy) are common terms when discussing African poverty and precarity.  The ugly trick here is that these analyses pass the guilt of all the African mess on the heads and shoulders of the Africans—most especially the leaderships.  And sadly, Africans have been blinded by the actually existing mess in their midst and the exorbitant, luxurious lives of their leaders.  But all this is a distraction. It is nonsense.

While I do not seek to downplay the agency and contribution of the Africans themselves, and their leaders, it is my sobering contention that the African condition—and thus the endless desire to travel into slavery in the Middle East, Europe or North America—is the story of the longue durée of Euro-America on the African continent.  Thus, focusing on the blighted lives of immigrant workers in Qatar—as emblematic of the Middle East—is tactfully telling half the story.  Were it not for the woes of the Euro-American empire, who structurally and directly continue to dispossess natives, surely no native would countenance going on these arduous journeys and equally ugly lives in their final destinations—be it by plane or sea.

Ruins of Euro-America in Africa

In several essays (see here, here, and here), I have written about the continued imperial control of the African continent by Euro-America.  There are numerous chronicles on this continued exploitation of the continent by present and earlier scholars ranging from Kwame Nkrumah, Walter Rodney, Ali Mazrui, Samir Amin, Archie Mafeje, Ezra Suruma, Sam Moyo, Dambisa Moyo and more recently Pigeaud and Samba Sylla, among many others.  The story starts from seemingly benevolent moves such as foreign aid, insistence on democracy (which is actually ‘divide and concur’), to clearly violent ideas such as structural adjustment programmes (an absolute case of double standards as the same does not apply to Europe and North America), to things such as military support, as evidenced recently by  Africa-America, Africa-France, Africa-Russia ‘puppet summits’ where African leaders are bussed around like school children before being subtly—and sometimes, openly—harassed, threatened, conditioned, and hypnotised into signing contracts that mortgage entire countries.   Structural adjustment or privatisation sadly, only opened African infant economies to international capitalists ranging from banks, telecoms, power distributors to mining giants, while at the same time, ruined public goods and service industries that were uninteresting, unprofitable to private capitalists coming from abroad.

A recent study by Jason Hickel, Dylan Sullivan and Huzaifa Zoomkawala put the pillage at $152 trillion dollars between 1960-2018 in the form of lost growth and unequal exchange.  These scholars, an economic anthropologist and data analyst noted that,

The global North (‘advanced economies’) appropriated from the South commodities worth $2.2 trillion in Northern prices — enough to end extreme poverty 15 times over.  Over the whole period, drain from the South totalled $62 trillion (constant 2011 dollars), or $152 trillion when accounting for lost growth.

These figures are astounding. If the US economy (perhaps the biggest in the world) is just $25 trillion dollars, consider the loss, which amounts to six times the economy of the United States.  This loss translates into the endless conditions of precarity, lack and absence, with no end in sight. This is the message which was ferociously articulated by Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni who argued that journeys of Africans to Europe through her country are a direct product of continued direct French colonial control of 14 West African countries.

With 70% of items consumed in Europe and North America coming from formerly colonised places, extracted under violent conditions or under conditions of unequal exchange, then you have created a pool of natives conditioned into migrancy at all odds. Because they read the news, watch the movies, and see their compatriots returning from Europe. While they may not succinctly articulate it, they know that a great deal of what they see in Europe and North America originates from their countries. Noted in the study, these stolen resources are able “enough to end extreme poverty 15 times over.” But the problem is that these resources are cleverly stolen and taken to Europe and North America.

In conclusion, it is absurd, unempathetic, and sanctimonious to tell the story of a dead immigrant only in the place of their death and squarely blame it on the conditions under which they met their final death. This story might be complex, but easily plottable.  It is not just those Africans braving the high seas to Europe and North America who embody the pains of dislocation by Euro-America, but also the young men and women lining up airports for work in the slave relations in the Middle East. This is why when they move, they are not called ‘expats’—as the other work-seekers moving from Europe and North America to other parts of the world. This is not because they carry no “specialised skills” (which is itself a colonial construction), but because the conditions under which they move dehumanised them afore.  This dehumanisation becomes their identity, the label under which they move, and thus named and treated.  Thus, in death, their story ought to be told more explicitly, more empathetically and more honestly—as the walking dead being finally being lowered into the ground.


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