« Qatar is like a jail ». Daily life in a Nepalese migrant labor camp and the inmate metaphor

Communication de Tristan Bruslé dans le cadre du colloque Rethinking the Himalaya: The Indo-Tibetan Interface and Beyond, Minneapolis, 28-30 octobre 2011.

Nepalese migrants in the Gulf countries number between 1.2 and 2 million. Their living space extends far beyond the traditional pattern of Nepalese migrations to India but at the same time, locally, they shrink to set places due to the policy implemented by the State of Qatar. Since, for the most part, they belong to the working class diaspora, they are housed in labor camps, a model predominant in accommodating millions of “guest workers” in the Gulf States. As “neo-liberal spaces” (Marsden), labor camps combine the need both for global companies to have flexible, on-the-spot manpower hired on a short-term contract (the sponsorship system fits these objectives perfectly) and for the host countries to try and settle the demographic imbalance on the labor market without having to address any integration issues. In a world described as more and more fluid and open to circulation, labor camps are nonetheless spaces of confinement and exclusion. In Qatar they are part of highly segregated urban planning (Nagy), of which Nepalese migrants suffer the discriminatory nature.

In this paper I focus on the materiality and representations of daily life inside a labor camp and on the inmate metaphor used by workers to describe their own status. I analyze the use of places and the pace of camp life. The use of the word “jail” (jelkhana) to portray their own lives becomes apparent in the migrant’s discourse. I show how such statements are formulated and how people live and describe their lives in such a constrained environment. As a word whose meaning is not usually applied to this category of people, I show how it corresponds to the creation of a self “set apart” category. “Jail” should not only be understood as a closed place but should be seen as a metaphor for a set of constraints felt by migrants: the obligation to leave home, to take out a loan, to reimburse it, to work and never to change jobs, to live in a camp and so forth.

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