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10/05/2010 Share/Save/Bookmark
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Gulf or Bust

Gulf or Bust

(Dp-news - Syria Today)

Jihad, a painter and decorator from Homs, tells a familiar story. Unable to earn enough money in his hometown to adequately support his wife and son, the 30-year-old moved to Dubai last year. Having earned an average of SYP 7,000 (USD 152) in Homs each month, he now earns the equivalent of SYP 25,000 (USD 543) per month in Dubai.

“I felt I had no choice and had to leave, even though it meant leaving my wife and son behind,” Jihad said. “In Syria I couldn’t earn enough to keep my family. The Gulf offers better opportunities.”

There are an estimated 1 million Syrians living and working in the Gulf states, generally Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Every year tens of thousands make the journey east, looking to better their lot in the petro-economies of their wealthier neighbors. Together, they make up the bulk of the SYP 39.1bn (USD 850m) which is pumped into the local economy annually in the form of remittances. Unlike immigrants to North America or Europe, most will return to live in Syria, bringing back valuable skills and on-the-job training.

“Most migrants [to the Gulf] will return within a few years and in this time they will have gained experience and knowledge which they can put to good use in Syria,” Rasha al-Harfoush, labour force director at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, said. “In addition, not all graduates and professionals are able to find suitable work in Syria, so many could not use their skills even if they did stay.”

Work wanted
According to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor there are essentially two groups of Syrians working in the Gulf. The first and much smaller group consists of people who immigrated in the 1970s and 1980s. These are, generally speaking, highly educated white-collar professionals who are well-off financially and live with their families. The second group consists of more recent arrivals, nearly all of whom are young men aged 23 to 28 who, if married, travel to the Gulf without their families. They have generally finished their high-school studies and may also have a university degree. Very few aim to immigrate permanently. Rather, they go with the aim of saving enough money to buy a home, get married, or raise the capital for a business venture back in Syria.

The vast majority of Syrians in the Gulf are workers travelling alone, as very few are able to bring their families with them. Some states, such as Kuwait, have linked family migration to a salary cap, meaning workers earning less than a certain amount cannot bring their families with them. Employment contracts can also stipulate that workers travel alone. Even migrants who are allowed to bring family members and can afford to do so may choose not to in order to reduce their living costs and save more money.

Building up a picture of which sectors Syrians work in is not easy. Anecdotally, Syrian migrants can be found working in nearly all sectors, from highly skilled top-tier positions such as senior mangers, to manual and unskilled laborers. A large number work in mid-level positions as junior managers and supervisors, particularly in sales. Amir, a former salesman and shop manager in Saudi Arabia, said that Gulf companies often choose Syrians and Lebanese as sales managers.

“Obviously we speak Arabic, which helps in dealing with customers and suppliers,” he said. “Also, we are generally thought of as very presentable and smart, with nice manners. And we’re renowned for having the gift of the gab when it comes to sales.”

The majority of Syrian workers, however, perform low-skilled jobs. The Syrian Embassy in Kuwait, for example, reports that “there are a large number of engineers and doctors, around 3,000 teachers and many successful businessmen working in many areas, but the majority of Syrians here are working in basic jobs and professions”.

Syrians are attracted to the Gulf by predictable ‘push and pull’ factors, including better employment opportunities and higher salaries. Many migrants say that they make the move to raise money for a specific reason, such as buying a house or getting married. Yet expectations do not always match with reality. High living expenses, particularly rents, mean it can be difficult to save money.

“I received a good salary, but I didn’t end up saving much money,” Amir, who worked in Saudi Arabia for eight years, said. “My employer provided me with accommodation, but it was in terrible condition so I moved out and found my own place. This was obviously much more expensive. I didn’t come back to Syria with any real savings.”

Hostage to sponsors
A key feature of migration to the Gulf is the ‘kafala’ or ‘sponsorship’ system. Migrant workers must receive an offer of employment from a Gulf company or citizen to gain a visa. Visa issues are then dealt with by the sponsor, rather than any government agency. The sponsor has complete responsibility for the migrant’s stay in the country and thus has considerable power over them. It is not possible to change employer without the original sponsor’s permission and migrants must leave as soon as their contract expires.

Many critics complain that this system leaves workers vulnerable to abuse. Sponsors can refuse to honour contracts signed in Syria and impose new working conditions or wages when workers arrive. They can also make employees work illegal hours, delay their salary payments or dismiss them arbitrarily. As migrants have little or no direct access to the authorities, it is difficult to lodge complaints. Syrian embassies only offer limited assistance to migrant workers as all complaints are supposed to be directed to the local ministry of labour through the sponsor – a classic Catch-22 for disgruntled workers. Embassies do receive some complaints and requests for assistance, but often can do no more than refer the problem to the local authorities.

“Employers often promise you one salary in Damascus, but then offer you a lower one once you arrive,” Amir said. “They will not give you permission to transfer your visa to another sponsor, so you’re basically stuck with them and have to accept what they offer.”

The sponsorship system also encourages a market for illegal visas. Migrants can pay employers or employment agencies to procure them visas for jobs which do not really exist and begin searching for work upon arrival. With visas costing up to SYP 184,000 (USD 4,000), this is a multimillion dollar business. Sponsors are often reported to demand extra irregular ‘fees’ for their services, essentially blackmailing migrants by threatening to cancel their contracts. The Syrian government insists that illegal visas are not a major problem for Syrian migrants, as they are only issued through authorized agencies. Migrants themselves, however, report that they are common. Many also choose to go to the Gulf this way because they are then free to negotiate their own employment contracts.

Furthermore, in recent years the Gulf states have moved to lower migration levels and put more of their own citizens to work. The number of visas to all countries has been reduced, as have the categories of work for which visas are granted. Periodic efforts have been made in recent years to round up and expel illegal immigrants and those who have overstayed their visa. The introduction of a salary cap for family migration is also intended to keep down the number of non-nationals. Several states have also brought in new taxes which makes moving there less attractive. Saudi Arabia has introduced a direct fee for expatriates which is put in a special fund and used to train national workers. Kuwait has introduced compulsory health insurance for migrants which many observers claim has been put in place to act as a disincentive to potential migrants. It has also raised the costs of renewing residency permits, registering in the country and gaining a driver’s license. The UAE, meanwhile, has raised the fees for verifying university certificates from SYP 1,242 (USD 27) to SYP 6,394 (USD 139).

Fond memories
Despite such problems, the vast majority of migrants who have returned to Syria seem keen to stress the positives. Ali Rabee, a 29-year-old from rural Damascus, worked and studied in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and says he loved living in the Gulf. He only decided to return to Syria after getting fed up with petty problems with his employers. However, he still looks back on his time in the Gulf with fond memories

“The years I lived in Abu Dhabi in particular were the best of my life,” he said. “I had a good job and a good salary, so I had a great lifestyle and could travel a lot. I had many local friends and really liked the people in Abu Dhabi. Also, I was away from my family so I had lots of freedom and I definitely made the most of this.”

Ali was able to save up a reasonable sum of money, buying a farm in his native village and paying his military service exemption fee upon his return. However, he feels he could have done better.

“I could have saved more, but I was young and was having a good time so I spent a lot of money while I was there,” he said. “I’m happy to be back in Syria because it is my home and I don’t plan to move abroad again, but I’m definitely glad I had this experience.”

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