Quick Facts

Dedicated migrant detention sites: 1 (2008)

Migrant workers: 300,000 (2006)

Domestic migrant workers: 70,000 (2008)

Asylum seekers: 49 (end 2008)

Last updated: September 2009

Bahrain Detention Profile


Detention policy

Detention infrastructure

Facts and figures


Migrant workers are the backbone of the Bahraini economy, providing cheap labour for a range of unskilled jobs, in particular domestic labour. The private sponsorship—“kafala”—system, a program that requires migrants to secure a Bahraini guarantor prior to entering the country, is notorious for denying migrant workers’ rights and putting immigrants at the mercy of their employers. The sponsorship system also creates a number of grounds for the detention of immigrants. Immigrants who enter the country legally can be made “illegal” almost overnight at the behest of employers, and the accumulation of migrant-worker debt can lead to detention and deportation. The sponsorship system has also been tied to the trafficking of persons and forced labour in Bahrain, with migrants being given false job promises and then confronted with legal sanctions when they flee from or complain about their traffickers and/or employers.



Detention Policy. Migrants who enter or reside in Bahrain without required documentation are subject to administrative detention prior to deportation (WGAD 2002, p. 26). Migrant labourers typically enter the country on a work permit issued by a Bahraini sponsor. The sponsor acts as a guarantor for the migrant and is responsible for paying an immigration tax, issuing required documentation, and covering the costs of expulsion, if required. Immigrants are “recruited” in their country of origin, often through a travel agent, and they rarely meet their sponsors. A significant portion of an immigrant’s wage is usually paid to the sponsor (WGAD 2002, p. 26).


According to the 1976 Labour Law (also known as the AMIRI Decree), an employer is responsible for obtaining a work permit for the migrant worker; however, the migrant worker must apply for a work card from the Directorate of Labour (Amiri Decree Law.23/1976, Art. 4). In cases where an employer/sponsor terminates a contract with a migrant worker, or if a migrant worker leaves his/her place of employment, the employer is required to notify the Directorate of Labour within two days, and return the work card of the migrant worker (Law.13/1976, Art. 11). After this, the migrant worker is no longer legally permitted to remain in the country and is subject to detention (WGUPR 2008).


Media reports indicate that undocumented migrants can be detained indefinitely, particularly where outstanding debts have not been paid, or after criminal sentences have been served. There are cases of migrants awaiting deportation being detained for several years (George 2006). The Global Detention Project has been unable to independently verify if Bahraini law allows for indefinite administrative detention.


The kafala sponsorship system, which is widely used throughout the Middle East, has been sharply criticized by international organizations and NGOs due to the total dependency it creates for migrant workers on their sponsors (ILO 2009). Reports of sponsor abuse against immigrant workers include accounts of sponsors failing to provide mandatory temporary residence permits and the confiscation of passports on arrival at the airport (WGAD 2002). Migrants who wish to change jobs must first secure the consent of their current employer and sponsor. While the 1976 Labour Code protects against abuse and exploitation of foreign workers, the protections do not extend to Bahrain’s estimated 70,000 (BCHR 2008) domestic labourers (SRTP 2007; ILO 2009).


A 2004 International Labour Organisation (ILO) study reported that female domestic labourers work an average of 108 hours per week in Bahrain, with restrictions placed on their movement (ILO 2004, p.18). They are subject to physical and sexual abuse, their salaries are withheld, and they have little access to institutional support due to language barriers and lengthy legal proceedings (UN Press Release 2006; HRW 2009; BCHR 2008). The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stressed their vulnerability, stating: “Since their legal status in Bahrain depends on the continued visa sponsorship of their employers, those who attempt to escape from exploitative situations risk arrest, prolonged administrative detention and deportation” (WGUPR 2008).


The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) has raised concerns about the vulnerabilities migrant workers face as a result of work-related discrimination. The CEACR reported that migrant workers can be denied access to legal protection because Article 18 of the Constitution of Bahrain “does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of race or colour, and does not appear to protect non-nationals from discrimination on the grounds listed in the Convention, leaving foreigners without legal protection from discriminatory treatment.” The committee urged the government to include provisions “explicitly defining and prohibiting direct and indirect discrimination on the basis of all the grounds enumerated in Article 1(1)(a) of the Convention and in respect of all aspects of employment” (CEACR 2009).


Many migrants are detained on the grounds that they are unable to repay debts owed to sponsors. According to Bahraini legislation, “anyone sentenced to pay a fine may be imprisoned for up to one year to compel performance” (WGAD 2002, p. 26). Migrants are subject to deportation once they have served a sentence under this law, and are often detained—in some cases indefinitely—until they can be deported or repay their debts. In April 2007, the media reported that five Indians and one Pakistani had been detained for almost two years in the Asry Detention Centre, and were unable to be deported due to debts and civil cases brought against them (Bew 2007a).


Bahrain is not party to the Refugee Convention (UNHCR 2008) and does not recognize asylum seekers or refugee status in its domestic law. In practice, however, the government has provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened, operating in cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and NGOs to assist refugees and asylum seekers (U.S. State Department 2009).


In January 2008, Bahrain introduced anti-trafficking legislation that provided sanctions against people traffickers (U.S. State Department 2009). Prior to this, Bahrain did not recognize trafficking in persons as a crime. Victims of trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department, are often reluctant to file complaints with authorities because they are unaware of their legal rights, and are afraid that their employers will punish them or order their deportation (U.S. State Department 2009). The Bahraini Penal Code criminalizes prostitution, and women found to be engaging in acts of prostitution are subject to prosecution, detention, and deportation (UN Press Release 2006). In 2008, the government established a 10-person unit within the Criminal Investigation Directorate to combat trafficking in persons (U.S. State Department 2009).



Detention Infrastructure. Bahrain appears to maintain one dedicated immigration detention facility: the Hidd Detention Center (WGAD 2002; Pradeep 2008). The site is used to detain men, though media reports indicate that women have also been detained there (Pradeep 2008). The Asry Detention Center also frequently detains foreigners (del Rosario 2007; Bew 2007a). The Global Detention Project has not been able to confirm whether the Asry centre is a dedicated migrant detention facility or a general detention centre.


A 2002 WGAD report stated that the Isa Town Prison for Women was used to hold “irregular” migrant women, who were detained in separate areas from criminal detainees (WGAD 2002, p.25). The report indicated that the Ministry of the Interior is responsible for the immigration detention centres and the women’s Isa Town Prison, and that they are managed by specially trained police officers (WGAD 2002, p. 24). The Global Detention Project has been unable to confirm whether this information remains current.


Independent monitors have reported that their efforts to visit and inspect all places of detention in Bahrain without prior notice are severely restricted (CAT 2005; U.S. State Department 2009). The Supreme Council for Women (SCW), a quasi-governmental body, visited the Isa Town women’s prison in 2006; however no report was ever released (U.S. State Department 2009). In 2002, the WGAD reported that foreigners in immigration detention centres and prisons often speak neither Arabic nor English and frequently have no access to legal aid (WGAD 2002, p. 26). 



Facts and Figures. Bahrain appears to maintain one dedicated immigration detention facility: the Hidd Detention Center (WGAD 2002; Pradeep 2008). The site is used to detain men, though media reports indicate that women have also been detained there (Pradeep 2008).


At the end of 2008 there were 49 asylum seekers with pending decisions residing in Bahrain (UNHCR 2009). According to the UN, in 2006 there were 300,000 migrant workers in Bahrain, amounting to more than a third of the country’s total population. Some 50,000 migrant workers are female domestic workers (WGUPR 2008). The Asian Migration News reported that in April 2007, a total of 774,387 people entered Bahrain, while only 26,504 left the country. Also during that month, Bahrain issued 13,154 employment, 3,667 visit, and 3,595 transit visas (AMN 2007).


During the period August 2007-January 2008, Bahrain offered an amnesty for immigrants in an irregular situation (U.S. State Department 2009; AMN 2007). During this period, immigrants could voluntarily return to their home countries, change employers, and/or renew expired visas without incurring penalties. The U.S. State Department reported that during this period 12,897 workers returned to their countries of origin, 29,804 changed to a new employer, and 13,641 renewed expired visas (U.S. State Department 2009).