Braving the high seas to Europe and North America – the many killers of the migrant worker

Migrant workers next to a building site in the West Bay area of Doha, Qatar, Feb. 1, 2014.

Yusuf Serunkuma writes 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 journeys to either Europe or the Middle East and then, they finally die in dehumanising working conditions if they ever arrive. Serunkuma exposes the hypocrisy, racism and murder at the heart of the global north.

Six thousand five hundred migrant workers are documented to have died in Qatar in the build-up to last year’s 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 — which ended in these many deaths. In the final three months to the kick-off of the tournament (about July-October last year), 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 insisted they 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, of whose world I’m more familiar with.  While 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 rigor, 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 death — which is the crowning of their dehumanization — their bodies could be rendered lifeless and absorbed into the ground. But they would have died many times before this moment.

Please note that in these many moments of morbidity (dehumanization, 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 en route 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 the labor 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, and 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, more difficult trick: because this violence is fetishized, structural, to the point that the victim could even be compensated at market rates). If found en route, their bodies become the target.  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 laborer 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 (having 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 mission 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 in the lobby waiting to leave for the same destination. 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), 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, what then is there for their return? Consider the fact that over 24,000 Ugandans seek employment in the Middle East every year—and this has been happening for the last 10 years! But this is not 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 stayed on the continent and also doomed if they decide to leave the continent.

Erudite pan-Africanist, Abdul-Raheem Tajudeen summarised this condition well when keynoting at conference in Nairobi. He opened 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 queues 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, signaling to the outright approval of what Tajudeen had said.  But why would this be true in independent countries with innumerable programs towards uplifting their people from penury and misery?


During my fieldwork as a graduate student in Somaliland in 2015, I recall vividly witnessing an epidemic where youngsters determined to make the dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean through Libya into Europe in search for 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 phenomenon is called, was a major talking point in Hargeisa and remains so 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 of the trauma and sacrifice on the high seas. These enthusiastic and well-meaning returnees were often met with a threefold solid response: (a) a direct question, “what else is left for me here?” (b) a rhetorical question, “how come you made it?” and (c) a philosophical statement, “every dog has his day.” Thus, Tahribbecame 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 patronized the 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) wants to leave their families behind (their beautiful wives, husbands and children), their social networks, their eco-system of friendships and care, to 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, the gentle all year-round sunshine, or the abundant natural and marine resources. It is not just the people and their traditions—who are still fairly untouched by capitalist individualism and corruptions. It is all 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, occasionally 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, and 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 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 while 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 living equally ugly lives in their final destinations—be it by plane or sea.

Ruins of Euro-America in Africa

In several essays (see herehere, 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 programs (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 hypnotized into signing contracts that mortgage entire countries.

Structural adjustment or privatization 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 totaled $62 trillion (constant 2011 dollars), or $152 trillion when accounting for lost growth.

These figures are astounding. If the US economy is just $25 trillion dollars, considered perhaps the biggest economy in the world, 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. Seventy percent of items consumed in Europe and North America come from former colonies, extracted under violent conditions or under conditions of unequal exchange. While the native 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 “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, 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 at airports for work in the slave conditions 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 dehumanized them.  This dehumanization becomes their identity, the label under which they move, and thus are 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.

Yusuf Serunkuma is a columnist in Uganda’s newspapers, scholar and a playwright. In 2014, Fountain Publishers published his first play, The Snake Farmers which was received with critical acclaim in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda. He is also a scholar and researcher who teaches political economy and history, and writes regularly for ROAPE

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