‘Stranded’ footballer Zahir Belounis told he can leave Qatar

Story highlights

Qatar has come under fire for its failure to grant exit visas to foreign migrants

After two year wait footballer Zahihr Belounis told he can leave

Qatari Football Association defends stance over Belounis

French football coach Stephane Morello also stranded in Qatar

CNN  — 

Zahir Belounis’ limbo existence is almost at end.

After two years of legal wrangling, threats of a hunger strike and thoughts of suicide, Belounis has been told he will finally receive his Qatari exit visa on October 21.

The 33-year-old footballer had been unable to leave the Gulf state following a pay dispute against club side El Jaish.

Living with his wife and two young children, he was left without pay and struggling to provide for his family.

Now, following intervention from the French government and numerous meetings with the Qatari Football Association, he will be allowed to return home with his wife and two children. The QFA has disputed Belounis’ claims.

“I feel like a hostage,” Belounis exclusively told CNN.

“Life has become a nightmare for me, my wife and my two small daughters.

“I try to be the best daddy I can but after I tuck them in at night, I go to bed and cry like a baby.

“They killed me inside. I hated myself. I had very dark thoughts.”

Read: No FIFA decision on Qatar dates until 2014

Trapped in Qatar and with little or no support, Belounis had taken to speaking out to the western media in the hope that he would gain enough publicity to help acquire an exit visa.

Qatar has come under intense media scrutiny since winning the right to stage the 2022 World Cup, particularly over its employment laws – notably the kafala system, which requires expatriate workers and some visitors to have a residence permit.

Hunger strike threat

Staging a World Cup is a major undertaking, requiring the building of stadiums and transportation links.

That requires labor and according to United Nations figures it is estimated that 500 new immigrants arrive in the country every day – many from the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia.

A CNN report in May highlighted allegations by rights groups that thousands of construction workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup have been abused, denied their wages and trapped in a situation from which they cannot escape because, under Qatar’s visa system, workers cannot leave the country without their employer’s consent.

“At the time of that report, the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee said in a statement to CNN: “The safety, security, health and dignity of workers – be they professionals or construction workers – is of paramount importance.

“Our commitment is to change working conditions in order to ensure a lasting legacy of improved worker welfare. We are aware this cannot be done overnight. But the 2022 FIFA World Cup is acting as a catalyst for improvements in this regard.”

The Kafala law explained

The Kafala law explained

  • The kafala system ensures that all expatriate workers in Qatar and some visitors require a residence permit.
  • These can be provided by a resident sponsor, an employer or the person inviting a visitor on his or her sponsorship.
  • Human Rights Watch says that residence sponsors do not need to justify their failure to provide an exit permit – the onus is on the expatriate to find another exit sponsor.
  • They can do this by finding another Qatari national or by claiming a certificate which establishes that there are no outstanding legal claims against them.

    The system ties a worker to one employer only – meaning they are unable to work for anyone else but their sponsor.

    Earlier this year Belounis was so desperate he threatened to go on hunger strike, but was advised by his legal team that would only undermine his case.

    “I’ve done nothing wrong and I shouldn’t be here,” said Belounis, as he tried to hold back his anger.

    “I met the French President Francois Hollande and he told me that it will be OK,” added Belounis.

    “This is not a case of justice – it is a case of my human rights being violated.

    “I’ve lost my freedom and I’ve done nothing bad. My life is a disaster – it is a nightmare.”

    Read: Qatar defends 2022 World Cup project

    Belounis’ tale has been challenged by the Qatari Football Association, which pointed out in a statement given to CNN that “as in any other football association in the world, there will unfortunately always be contractual disputes between clubs and players/coaches.”

    It went on to add: “It is also relevant to emphasize that up to now the player has not taken any action in front of the competent judicial bodies of FIFA.

    “Our records show also that Zahir Belounis received salaries from one of our other affiliated clubs, Al Markhiya Club, when he played there during the second half of the 2011/12 season.

    “At the end of that season, Zahir Belounis contacted the QFA for outstanding salaries from Al Markhiya Club. The QFA immediately took action and, after analysis and investigation which gave him right, the player received full compensation.

    “However, in the alleged case of El Jaish Club, Zahir Belounis did not contact QFA, although he had experienced the efficiency of doing so when his request was legitimate.”

    While the QFA has denied Belounis’ accusations, his case is not the only example of a highly skilled foreign worker being stranded in Qatar.

    Nick McGeehan, a Human Rights Watch lawyer, who has worked with Belounis throughout his case, is also in touch with several others trapped by the kafala system.

    “It’s pretty grim out there,” McGeehan told CNN.

    “These people have nobody to support them. We want the Qataris to abolish the exit visa system and we’re confident they will,” he added.

    “They don’t need it anymore and they now find themselves in a horrendous situation.

    “We have met with many low-paid migrant workers who have complained that they cannot leave the country because they either don’t have their passport or they haven’t been provided with the exit visas they require.

    “It is our understanding that migrant workers often encounter serious difficulties getting exit visas from their employer for a variety of reasons.

    “Migrant worker abuses are typically associated with low-paid workers from south Asia.”

    In an interview with CNN in early October, Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary general of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, defended his country’s efforts, while acknowledging that it takes time to develop and enforce labor rights laws.

    He said: “I’d be worried and concerned and appalled and disgusted at any individual working on any project – not just relating to the World Cup, but any project out there – that suffers such circumstances, and definitely these stories that have been reported are being investigated currently.

    “The government is taking a look at them.”

    Read: FIFA has ‘ugly’ culture

    Meanwhile the wait for Belounis went on.

    After a full 18 months, he took legal action against the club last February – a full 18 months, he says, after El Jaish had to pay him the amount stated in the five-year contract he stated in 2010.

    But he was loaned out to a second division team, Al Markhiya, in 2011 and says has not received any money since.

    El Jaish declined comment.

    Over the last three weeks, CNN approached a number of legal experts in the country and in the Middle East to discuss whether the justice system in the Gulf state treats foreign workers who are stuck in the country because of legal disputes differently to Qatari nationals. None were willing to talk about the matter on the record.

    “These types of cases are unfortunately all too common in their use of exit visas to control movement,” said one of Chatham House’s Middle East experts Kristian Coates Ulrichsen.

    “Again, the Qatari employer often is perceived (not inaccurately) as being ‘above the law’ and certainly has privileges and a degree of protection against expatriate workers.

    “The court system is slow and foreign workers face problems of language in navigating the procedural pathways, so these all add greatly to the delays in settling issues through the court.”

    No culture of negotiation

    Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one soccer coach who worked at a high level in Qatar, but has now returned to Europe, said professionals “stepped into an unpredictable story” when they agreed to work in the country.

    The coach experienced his own problems with a CEO and claims that there is “no culture of negotiating” when it comes to business in Qatar.

    The people I worked with were very correct and nice. I think the problem is situated at the top. There has never been a culture of negotiating,” he said.

    “Real people are authentic, but the manager I worked with was not. I wanted to earn my living according to my qualities and with the guarantee I could affect the Qatar society in a positive way.

    “The moment you want to address a real problem, the CEO is no longer available. He protects his position by replacing the critical staff, and will exclude you to get in touch with the top Qatari.”

    Read: What have we learned about FIFA and the 2022 World Cup?

    Belounis isn’t the only football professional who has been left in limbo in Qatar.

    French football coach Stephane Morello – has been been unable to leave Qatar since losing his job nearly four years ago.

    He first moved to the country to work with the Qatar National Olympic Committee and was given the role of first-team coach at the Al Shahanyia club.

    The following season he worked at Al Shamal before being relieved of his duties with five months of his contract still remaining.

    Morello alleges that he is still owed outstanding wages from the period July 12, 2008 to October 21, 2008 and June 1, 2009 to July 25, 2010.

    He has since held meetings with various lawyers, human rights groups and even met French President Francois Hollande in June.

    When contacted for a response to Morello’s allegations, the Qatar National Olympic committee declined comment.

    So for the 52-year-old, who is married with six children, the wait goes on.

    According to Morello, his contract included being paid $6,000, a house to live in, a car and five return flights from Doha to Bordeaux, France.

    “I asked the Olympic Committee to pay me for the remainder of my contract but they refused,” he told CNN.

    “They also refused to let me end my stay and give me airline tickets to return to France.

    “I did eventually receive the sum in early 2011 but I had no valid documents, I did not receive any answer to my requests for a visa renewal and am unable to work as a result.

    “I don’t have a salary and because I can’t obtain a letter from the sponsor it means I am helpless to pay for the education of my three children.”

    Read: World Cup hosts Qatar face scrutiny over ‘slavery’ accusations

    The French government is now trying to get Morello out of Qatar.

    “The embassy and officials are fully mobilized to negotiate with Qatari authorities but that the process takes time,” Romain Nadal, a French foreign ministry spokesman told CNN of Morello’s case.

    “They are well aware of the situation and they are trying to find a solution for each case.”

    The case of Belounis will at least give Morello reason for optimism.

    Belounis has already begun selling his furniture in anticipation of his departure – a moment which he thought would never come.

    “I probably won’t believe it until I hold the exit visa,” he added.

    “It has been a nightmare – but there has always been hope.”