Illustration by Tom Abi Samra

We Have A Responsibility to be More Intentional When We Talk About Migration

It would be a disservice if we leave here after four years stuck in a liminal space of not really defending and not really critiquing, without unpacking the inherent racialization of many of the ways in which migration issues are framed.

Dec 12, 2022

Our Special Issue shares, in part, its title with Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North, a classic in Arabic literature, that explores with damning candor the postcolonial condition, among many other aspects of our 21st century reality. At the heart of this reality, of course, is the experience of migration — intentional and/or forced, displacement, asylum, and exile.
NYU Abu Dhabi is an interesting case study in migration. Our Saadiyat campus is built and sustained on the backs of laborers and contracted workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, in a country that generously hosts upwards of 200 nationalities, in a region that is often at the crux of global migration discourse. Every student cohort at NYUAD brings together people from across the world, with the student body representing more than 125 nationalities, and a faculty who represent only about 50 different nationalities. From “global citizens” to “global leaders'', NYUAD students are fed a narrative of cosmopolitanism and transnationalism that is at the heart of many important questions in relation to migration journeys, experiences, and justice.
Now, as one of the world’s biggest sports tournaments plays out in Qatar, when the western gaze is glaring unforgivingly at Qatar, our proximity necessitates a critical reflection.
As hundreds of thousands flocked to Doha in the early weeks of November, a year-old Guardian article made rounds on social media and western media outlets, highlighting the alleged deaths of 6,500 migrant workers in Qatar in the last decade as the country prepared to host the FIFA World Cup. 6,500 is in fact the total number of deaths of individuals from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan during the given period due to a range of causes.
In fact, that number remains disputed. World Cup organizers estimate three work-related accidents and 37 deaths, while the UN estimates 50 deaths in the construction industry. According to Hassan Al Thawadi, chief executive of Qatar's World Cup organizing committee, “The estimate is around 400. Between 400 and 500.” In response to Piers Morgan, Al Thawadi said, “one death is a death too many. Plain and simple.”
Despite the debate when it comes to exact numbers, various sources have reported alleged mistreatment of migrant labor staff in relation to the World Cup, as evidenced here, and here, among various other pieces of reporting.
Condemnation of Qatar has remained front and center in western reporting of the World Cup. From the BBC refusing to air the opening ceremony of the World Cup, to general portrayals of Qatar in global media right now, this condemnation comes shrouded in thinly veiled Orientalism and racism, masquerading as concerns about the actual migrants whose lives, livelihoods and lived experiences face erasure.
It is easy to categorize something as worthy of condemnation and unworthy of redemption, without acknowledging one’s own closet skeletons. It is difficult for the west to contend critically with the idea that much of what is being critiqued in Qatar is also homegrown in the west itself. It is difficult to move away from an intentionally constructed norm of focusing criticism on certain places in the world, and to instead put the labor into decolonizing, deconstructing and humanizing narratives of oppression.
It goes without saying that many of the western critiques in relation to the World Cup are hypocritical. Yet, what remains unaddressed and unacknowledged is the fact that the historical and contextual conditions that have produced the specific conditions of migration and labor in Qatar are not too different from those in other parts of the world. The racialization and dehumanization of workers undergirds an expansive, transnational and historical capitalist system, one that has continued to exploit Brown and Black work across the world. This notably includes many of the countries that media pundits actively condemning Qatar now are based in themselves.
Qatar is yet another node of these global networks of migration and labor, and its policies and laws are not exceptional to the country, but rather a reflection of a global system which treats migrants as external actors and as tools for development. Much of the criticism directed at Qatar stems from global discourses founded on racist, Islamophobic and Orientalist tones, and must be recognized as such. However, it is equally important to emphasize that in the midst of defending against white, western misconceptions, discourses about the precarious insecurity and the lack of justice embedded in the lives of most Black and Brown migrant workers globally is overpowered and ultimately lost. And in doing so, we reproduce histories of violence on these bodies.
We speak of migrant justice and transience at NYU Abu Dhabi, we intellectualize lived experiences, we read papers and write them, but for the most part, the Saadiyat bubble has cushioned us from the realities of temporality that is part and parcel of being a migrant worker in any part of the world. If anything, it especially separates us from the realities of our own environment. Yet, our own proximity to these experiences and the privilege of our education at NYUAD demand that we cast an intentional, critical gaze at migrant experiences locally and globally. Our campus needs to be more cognizant of the harmfulness of current migration discourses, which has to start with a rapid decolonization of not just our curriculum, but also the institution at large, something that is often promised but seldom followed up on. Look around you: what are the different ways in which NYUAD is racialized? How can we begin to address it?
Our conversations about migrant workers often begin and end with an expression of pity and sympathy. It would be a disservice to many of us if we were to leave here after four years stuck in a liminal space of not really defending and not really critiquing, without contending with the complexity of global migration issues, and without unpacking the inherent racialization of many of the ways in which migration issues are framed.
This issue is our attempt to reckon with these global, and local, forces of migration and mobility, to move beyond western-centric, essentialist and exceptionalizing narratives of migrant rights and justice. It is meant to provide a nuanced, thoughtful critique of what we witness and, sometimes, are subjected to. This is not a perfect attempt nor is it an exhaustive one, but we hope that as students, staff, faculty, and administration — as community members of NYUAD — we at least sit with the responsibilities attached to our (somewhat) privileged status. We have written about climate migration and the impossibility of mobility, about forced displacement from one’s homeland, about traditions re-imagined in foreign lands, and of course, about how we approach migration studies in our own classrooms. There are many stories we have not written about but we hope, one day, to be able to.
The threshold of caring cannot begin and end with the number 6500, an easy number with which to vilify Arab states and sanctify those of the west. It is too absolute, too static and too anonymizing to the lives those numbers speak of.
Githmi Rabel and Huma Umar are Editors in Chief. Email them at
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