In March, Coda Story’s Burhan Wazir reported how blocked free voice and video apps in a number of Gulf countries in the Middle East were keeping low-income migrant workers from getting in touch with their families during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our story featured a Filipino administrator in a labor camp near Doha and found that because most free Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) apps such as WhatsApp and Skype, Facetime were blocked by authorities in Gulf countries like Qatar, Oman and United Arab Emirates, migrants were hardly able to communicate with their friends and relatives back home.    

Human rights organizations have called for Gulf countries to lift the ban on free VoIP services. The UAE, Qatar and Oman have eased some restrictions by permitting the use of platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams for the purpose of distance learning.

But not much has changed for migrant workers who are still facing connectivity issues with VoIP services when trying to call their families. On July 8 Euro-Mediterranean Monitor, an independent human rights organization released a statement at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council held in Geneva:

“The pandemic has compelled people all over the world, including the Gulf region, to use such essential applications to resume their work and education online, to connect virtually with family members and friends, and to access health related information and guidance. Hence, not lifting the ban hinders individuals’ ability to enjoy a normal life, stay home or socially distance.”

Governments in Gulf countries often limit how digital communications apps can be accessed as a means to isolate migrant populations, said Khalid Ibrahim, executive director at the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Beirut-based NGO.

“Migrant workers — they are always under pressure, they always have difficulties, they are always in poor conditions, so they try to isolate them from having communication with the outside world,” said Ibrahim, in a telephone interview. 

Migrant workers are still faced with paying for expensive calls to speak to their families. “They are saving money to have a future in their countries, they are not saving money to stay here. They are not going to spend their savings on calls,” Ibrahim continued. “They don’t have access to full payment, their salaries are reduced, their conditions are bad, they are facing the risk of Covid-19 so we don’t expect them to spend a lot on their calls.” 

Ibrahim said most migrant workers in the Gulf face a “hostile environment.” “This is just confirmation of what we already know,” he added.