Qatar’s ‘families only’ zones entrench segregation of migrant workers

Blue collar migrant workers effectively banned from living in Doha, and kept out of some of the city’s public areas, reinforcing negative stereotypes

It is Friday evening in downtown Doha, and Souq Waqif is heaving. The popular bazaar is packed with locals and tourists shopping for souvenirs, smoking hubble-bubble pipes and dining al fresco. Everyone is enjoying the warm spring evening and hypnotic music.

Everyone except men who appear to be from south Asia. As they wander through the souq, they are briskly intercepted by police, and appear to be directed straight to the exit.

The scene is repeated at Aspire Park, part of a sports and leisure complex surrounding the Khalifa stadium, one of the venues for the 2022 World Cup. Children practise their football skills, a boy glides by on a hoverboard and families picnic on the grass. But as a group of three south Asian males approach the park, they are quickly stopped by a man with a radio transceiver, who waves them away, saying the park is for families only.
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It comes as no surprise to the migrants. “Sometimes they stop us on the Corniche [promenade]. They also stop us while going to the big markets,” said one.

“If we were locals they would have let us in,” added another. “But they stop us from entering such beautiful places because we are from outside [the country]. It makes me feel bad.”

The workers’ experiences echo complaints from blue collar migrants about being excluded from Qatar’s national day celebrations in December.

South Asian workers are free to enter the City Centre and Villaggio shopping malls, but if Qatar’s only elected body, the Central Municipal Council (CMC), gets its way they may be barred from shopping centres on certain days too.

Late last year the CMC recommended that shopping malls reserve one day each week, reportedly either Friday or Saturday, for families only. The proposal would effectively exclude migrant labourers, whose only day off each week is Friday. A member of the CMC, Nasser Ibrahim Mohamed al-Mohannadi, said: “Families and children should have the right to enjoy time in the shopping malls without bachelors. If you are in the mall you will feel more comfortable with other families rather than with a bunch of guys.”


The government rejected the proposal, saying there was no legal basis for it, but it has been accused of passing laws that entrench segregation in other ways.

In 2010 the government passed a law that effectively banned blue collar migrant workers from living in certain parts of the country. Last year, it published further details of these “family zones”, which include virtually all of Doha.

“The housing ban, and the blanket designation of almost the whole of Doha and other urban areas as ‘family areas’, legitimises negative stereotypes about migrant workers and has the effect of further entrenching segregation in Qatar,” said James Lynch, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and north Africa.

“It is far from clear what the government really wants to achieve by enforcing this measure, other than perhaps to be seen to respond to concerns from some Qatari nationals about the speed of demographic change that has seen the migrant worker population rise so steeply in the run-up to the World Cup.”

Qatar’s labour force has increased by nearly 33% between 2011 and 2015, almost entirely due to the arrival of migrant workers. There are 1.6 million migrant workers in the country, comprising 94% of Qatar’s workforce.

Eight photos taken on a government-organised media tour of a workers’ accommodation camp in Doha
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Eight photos taken on a government-organised media tour of a workers’ accommodation camp in Doha. Photograph: Maya Alleruzzo/AP
To cater for this massive, and almost exclusively male, presence the authorities have built a vast labour camp, reportedly equipped with sports, shopping and entertainment facilities. Three hospitals solely for migrants are in the pipeline. But these reforms only highlight the increasing segregation of migrants within the country they are helping to build.

The authorities point to the accommodation, as well as a wage protection system and forthcoming reforms to kafala sponsorship, as evidence of their commitment to improving conditions for migrant workers, but not everyone sees it that way.

One Indian health and safety manager with a construction company said: “The Qataris’ willingness to do something good is zero … Their attitude is khalli balli, which basically means, ‘I couldn’t care less.’”

The government of Qatar did not respond to requests for comment.

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