For the past five days there has been nary a word from two British human-rights researchers who went to Qatar with the intention of investigating human slavery and have since disappeared.
On Sunday, friends of Krishna Upadhyaya and Ghimire Gundev received a series of anxious text messages. The men, both of Nepalese origin and fathers of two children, had checked out of their hotel and were due to depart the country that day, but they haven’t been heard from since. They were together in Doha—Upahdyaya as a researcher and Gundev as a photographer—to report on the often squalid conditions that migrant Nepalese laborers in Qatar are forced to work in. The pair were working at the behest of a human-rights organization called the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD).
According to Amnesty International, 52-year-old Upadhyaya had been messaging friends over the weekend, saying he felt he was being followed and thought it may be unsafe for him to make it to the airport from where he was staying at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. “I am being followed by the police here. Looks like they will give me troubles now,” he texted to one friend on Saturday night. He later checked into his flight but never boarded.
The men's organization, GNRD, believes the men are being held by Qatari authorities and fear they could be tortured in detention.
“GNRD has zealously fought to eliminate abuse of Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar,” the organization said in a statement. "We hold the Qatari authorities responsible for the safety of our employees. In the event that they are subjected to any kind of physical or psychological harm, GNRD is prepared to take all necessary legal action.”
The Qataris have not given any indication that they have the researchers and the country’s embassy in the U.S. did not return a request for information. Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Nicholas McGeehan says that HRW has not received updates on the mens' whereabouts and calls the fact the British government has also been left in the dark "extremely concerning." McGeehan personally knows Upadhyaya and describes him as "a warm, gentle, and well-liked human rights activist." Similar praise has been pouring out about both the men.
“He is a kind-hearted man who is always interested in helping the disabled and poor once [sic],” said the family of Ghimire in a statement. Upadhyaya’s family describes him as “a humanitarian who has been working for the freedom and rights of people for more than 20 years. He worked mostly for bonded labourers who were being mistreated but didn't have the means to escape their circumstances.”
If their detention was a method to stifle the flow of information on humans rights abuses out of Qatar, it will only served the opposite purpose.
As the tiny nation gears up for a massive swell of attention during the 2022 World Cup, its labor practices have provoked rage from watchdog human-rights groups, who say migrant workers are being abused as they help build the infrastructure for the games.
More than 90 percent of Qatar’s workforce is made up of migrant workers, and it's a growing population as Qatar brings in more labor for its construction sector. Of these migrants, 20 percent are Nepalese. According to Human Rights Watch, Qatar migrant workers suffer brutal conditions under a labor “sponsorship” program that allows bosses to control all aspects of their workers' lives. Beginning in 2012, groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been investigating the conditions that World Cup laborers are working under.
A report in Febuary found more than 400 Nepalese workers had died on Qatar’s construction sites since the beginning of 2012. In 2013, a resolution had been adopted by the European Union condemning Qatar's treatment of its workers and demanding protection for them—and in early 2014, HRW issued a damning report that condemned appalling migrant working conditions and a lack of labor reforms.
But Qatar appears not to have heeded these warnings. Despite a promise in the spring to revamp the system of sponsored labor, the government has announced no concrete plans to ameliorate the situation.
"There has been a pledge to reform, but the reforms fall well short of what is required and the situation on the ground remains as dismal as ever," says McGeehan.
In May, McGeehan visited a group of Nepalese migrant workers, and described them as “living in squalor,” abandoned by their employer and left without a way to return home.
Presumably, these are the same conditions Upadhyaya and Gundev would have found if they were allowed to do their investigation unhindered. With their disappearance, Qatar has just turned up the spotlight on its already worrisome human-rights record.
McGeehan says it's difficult to speculate now on the motives of the arrests, "But what we can say is that this is – at the very best – a dreadful PR gaffe."