Border lockdowns and communication blocks: In the wake of COVID-19, workers wonder how to contact home

As physical borders slam shut to prevent entry by those infected with COVID-19, cyber borders must remain open and free. ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies calls upon governments that have blocked communication platforms such as WhatsApp and Skype to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead and remove the controls during the global lockdown.

During this turbulent time when migrant workers are stranded far from home and family, governments in Gulf countries and elsewhere have yet to lift bans on digital messaging platforms imposed to censor dissident voices. However, those bans also keep foreign workers from keeping in touch with relatives.

The Saudi government lifted its own ban three years ago. It first prohibited those services in 2013, charging that they had become nests of dissident activities. However, to cultivate an environment conducive to business growth, the country reversed that decision in September 2017.

However, other governments in the region have not followed suit. The UAE, where foreign workers make up 85% of the population, blocks many applications that allow free phone communication, including Skype, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. International students and low-income expatriate workers instead must pay high prices for calling cards and virtual private network (VPN) services. With the spread of COVID-19 showing little sign of slowing down, the UAE and other governments must cooperate to alleviate tension and panic caused by travel bans, school closures and quarantines. If this crisis does not warrant a lifting of the bans, then one must assume such governments never will do so.

 

Background

Many people around the world rely on VoIP apps to control costs when connecting with families and friends and/or conducting business. However, residents in most Gulf countries are barred from using platforms such as WhatsApp, Messenger, Skype, FaceTime or Viber.

This is a hardship for often-low-paid migrant workers, who make up a majority of Gulf populations and struggle to afford paid international calls. For these communities, VoIP apps are a communication lifeline.

The cited reasons behind bans on these apps fall into one or more of three categories:

  1. Licensing: Governments often claim they do not meet regulatory requirements, thus shutting down services without licenses.
  2. Security: VoIP apps usually protect the privacy of their users’ calls with encryption, thus preventing surveillance.
  3. Profits: Consumers’ reliance on VoIP services reduces direct revenue to telecom service providers, which often are state owned. For example, the government of Saudi Arabia owns 70% of the Saudi Telecom Company, Qatar owns more than half of Ooredoo and the Emirates Investment Authority owns 60% of Etisalat.

 

Migrant and student calls home

For years, UAE, Qatar, Oman and other Gulf countries have banned free internet calls through WhatsApp, Messenger and FaceTime. Most countries also ban Skype; however, Oman made an exception for that platform as well as Microsoft’s Zoom for business use, help companies operate during the lockdown.

Qatar is home to the largest number of migrants, with 90 percent of its working population made up of such labourers. Amongst GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) members, the United Arab Emirates comes in second place It has an estimated 80 million migrant labourers, accounting for as much as 85% of its working population, Most are from Southeast Asia.

With estimated monthly salaries of around $200, low-income labourers have very little disposable income. Thus, much of that money is spent on VPN services or calling cards so they can talk to family members and friends back home.

Using VPN services is a cybercrime in the UAE and risks a potential penalty of an estimated $130,000 or jail time. This fine is more than these migrant workers will ever earn during their time in the UAE.

Most migrant workers’ families live in developing countries in harsh conditions, leaving them more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. However, with the ban on free communications platforms, low-income construction labourers and domestic workers struggle to afford the average $10 a month needed to talk to their loved ones. Thus, many labourers must limit the number of calls they make so they can continue to send money back home. The alternative may be using “black market” apps that expose them to online scams.

With the rapid spread of the virus, the ban on free communications platforms generates hostility, panic and uncertainty amongst low-income labourers who are anxious to connect with their families back home. 

 

Students and employees working from home 

With many people in Gulf countries working remotely under stay-at-home orders, and students engaged in distance learning, communication restrictions make that task doubly hard.

Employees working from home need the freedom to communicate online using a variety of platforms, making in-person meetings unnecessary and thus protecting them and others from disease.

Likewise, governments should ease the tasks of students at a time when studies have already been disrupted, university degrees are being restructured and there is general panic about exams, classes and final-year grades.

If lockdown procedures are to truly work, students must be allowed free access to online communication to ensure they stay home, rather than try to communicate with their teachers and fellow students in person. 
 

Lack of governmental transparency worldwide 

The blocking of internet communication platforms is not unique to Gulf countries. Many countries around the world have imposed similar bans. For example, Morocco blocked Skype and WhatsApp calls in 2016, but lifted the ban after eight months. Similarly, Algeria closed multiple messaging and social media apps t during the summer of 2016, but soon after lifted them. China and Iran impose bans on a long-term basis, with the former imiting usage to platforms it authorizes.

Blocking internet communication platforms is not the only way governing bodies restrict their populations. Since January 2019, the Ethiopian government has shut down the internet altogether in the Oromia region. In January 2020, government authorities went even further, disconnecting mobile networks in both the Oromia and Horo Guduru Wellega regions. In East Wellega, residents complained that social media services had been blocked, leaving only phone services available in certain towns.

The mass shutdown of internet communication and mobile services means that large segments of the population are unable to access information about COVID-19. Thus, they are unable to receive daily updates on developments and benefit from official advice. Vital news cannot be transmitted and reporting on current events is difficult. All countries with these communication blocks are in breach of international human rights law, which protects the right to freely seek, receive and provide information.

Similar methods for restricting communication among the population are seen in Iran, where the government has constructed layers of cyber censorship and blocks call apps like WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger and Skype. Thus, Iranians resort to an alternative messaging app called Telegram. Still, the people inside Iran are limited in with whom they can communicate. This makes sharing information about COVID-19 difficult and complicated. The majority of the population have no choice other than state-sanctioned TV channels for updates on the spread of the virus.

Similar to the UAE residents, Iranians can use VPNs as alternatives—at a high cost. They can pay to have VPN installed into their phones and top-up monthly to ensure it keeps working. However, the entire internet can be shut off at the request of the government. This occurred in November 2019 when authorities blocked all internet access in the country to prevent Iranians from communicating about the domestic situation to the outside world. This is extremely worrying during a global pandemic, since at any moment the people can be plunged into the dark, with only government-shaped information available. The result is further distrust between the population and its government. 
 

Facilitating reliable and free communication

Now more than at any other period, open communication must be facilitated, not made more difficult. As governments are trying to deal with and contain the virus, reliable and correct information must circulate. This is not the time for governments to block and restrict communication; rather, it is a time when people need to stay connected and support each other.

This necessitates an open, secure internet that allows unfettered sharing of information between a variety of parties—not just from governments. Any interference with people's access to and sharing of information must stop if Gulf states wish to comprehensively combat COVID-19. 

At the peak of the spread of COVID-19, the Chinese government withheld information about the extent of the spread and its consequences. The number of casualties were undercounted, and the internet block meant the public could not communicate this to the outside world. By blocking such transparency, the governments of China, UAE and other countries put their public health systems at major risk.

The fast spread of COVID-19 leads ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies to call upon Gulf and other countries that have similar bans to lift the restrictions on social networks and the internet in general. In combating this pandemic, we must all be united and free to communicate with loved ones, employees and fellow students, as well as to access updated information on COVID-19.

 

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