The Suicide Epidemic Among Dubai’s Migrant Workers

Tupa is devastated to learn of the suicide of an Indian man whom she has befriended in Dubai.  In reality, his death is part of a much wider suicide epidemic among the city’s population of migrant workers, one that is particularly prevalent among men from India.  Why is this happening?


On May 10, 2011, Athiraman Kannan, a 38-year old migrant worker from India who worked for Arabtec, one of the largest construction companies in the Gulf region, climbed to the 148thfloor of the Burj Khalifa – Dubai’s most iconic building – carefully removed his shoes, placed them on the plush carpet together with a short, hand-written note, and squirmed through an air conditioning duct that vented to the exterior of the building.  As he pushed the intake grate open, all of Dubai lay before him – it must have been a spectacular site.  Athiraman Kannan flung himself into that panoramic scene, his body striking several metal barriers as he tumbled 40 floors and over 400 feet before landing on the private sun deck of someone’s ultra-luxury apartment on the 108thfloor. 


The symbolism and grandiosity of Kannan’s chosen method of suicide did not escape the media and others, who for a rare but brief moment focused on what has become an epidemic of suicides among migrant workers in Dubai, the UAE, and the Gulf Region in general.  In Kannan’s case, his suicide was attributed to ongoing financial problems and Arabtec’s refusal to allow him to return home in order to deal with family matters following the death of his brother.  Of course, Arabtec was quick to deny these charges and, backed by the Dubai police, suggested that his death had nothing to do with work but with circumstances back home and the onset of a deep depression over his brother’s death.  A tug of war ensued over whether to situate Kannan’s suicide in terms of working conditions in Dubai or personal matters back home.  It is an all too familiar debate over meaning and accountability that occurs after almost every suicide in Dubai, and one that denies the true complexity of the migrant labor experience in the modern era of economic globalization and transnational migration. 


In the wake of Kannan’s death, the Consulate General of India in Dubai revealed that at least two Indian workers committed suicide each week.  By necessity, the consulate had developed a fairly efficient process of dealing with suicides, which to many came across as so cold and formulaic that it prompted the Indian Ambassador to defend the office, assuring the media that, “Any death is shocking, it is shocking for us.” The skyrocketing number of suicides among its expatriate population even prompted the Indian Embassy to launch a 3-month, 5-language radio campaign informing its citizens of a recently developed distress hotline and help center, which was flooded with so many calls that it became a permanent service.


As with anything that poses a potential threat to Brand Dubai or the UAE’s tenuous relationship with its migrant labor workforce, the most notable feature of the available information on suicide is its scarcity.  Yet even the handful of research that does exist supports a shockingly high rate of expatriate suicides.  Between 2003 and 2009, the suicide rate among foreign workers in Dubai was seven times higher than that among nationals.  Across the UAE in general, a survey of depression and suicidal behavior conducted among male migrant workers during a 2-month period in 2008 revealed that 25% suffered from clinical depression, 6.3% reported suicidal thoughts, and 2.5% had attempted suicide.  A related study highlighted that the vast majority of suicide victims in Dubai were male migrant workers and an astounding three out of four expatriate suicides were committed by Indians.  In fact, a day barely goes by where there is not at least some mention in the popular media of another migrant worker committing suicide in the UAE – usually in Dubai.  


Yet as shocking as these handful of statistics and reports are, it is almost certain that they do not reflect the actual extent of the suicide epidemic in the UAE.  It is well known that among migrant workers the numbers for any injury or fatality – let alone those by suicide – are seriously underreported or not reported at all. In 2006, Human Rights Watch described a cover up of the actual numbers of deaths and injuries among migrant workers in Dubai when it discovered that of nearly 6,000 construction companies in the emirate, only six reported any kind of injury to the police and Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs as required by law.  It condemned UAE leaders for failing to enforce laws that would allow it to collect official figures.  At one point, the Dubai Municipality did in fact present some figures, but Human Rights Watch quickly dismissed them as being so wildly below those compiled by researchers working in collaboration with various embassies and consulates that they defied belief.  For example, in 2005 the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths among its expatriate population in Dubai alone while during the same period the Dubai Municipality offered a figure of 39 deaths for allnationalities in the emirate.  


The suicide epidemic can easily be made to disappear in such an environment. Even the unofficial rates do not include failed attempts or those categorized as something else, such as work-related injuries or accidents.  Workers themselves are less likely to report either suicides or suicide attempts due to the stigma involved and the fact that under Sharia law suicide is illegal. In the UAE, those suspected of attempting suicide face 6 months in jail and a relatively hefty fine.  For those on temporary work visas, it is a punishment that almost certainly represents the loss of their jobs followed by deportation, ensuring that the problems that may have been driving them to contemplate ending their lives are multiplied ten-fold. 


Most importantly, these figures do not address the fact that many migrant workers commit suicide back home.  In Andhra Pradesh, a state in the southeastern part of India whose residents have a long history of labor migration to the Gulf region, about 40 people kill themselves each day, an extraordinarily high suicide rate that is directly associated with a large number of returning Gulf migrants. Whether the actual act of suicide is carried out in the UAE or India is beside the point, since the underlying issues are the same.  But there is a tendency to look at suicides that occur only in the Gulf Region, a focus that obscures the overwhelming stresses caused by an endless cycle of poverty, indebtedness, and transnational migration from which few individuals break free.  And for most migrant workers in the Gulf Region that cycle begins squarely at home. 


In the Indian state of Kerala, which together with Andhra Pradesh and several other states in the southern half of the country make up what is often referred to as the suicide capital of the world, one of the most striking aspects of the Gulf migrant is their idealized, hero-like status.  Kerala has a long history of migration to the Gulf that stretches back decades; the state provides one half of all Indian workers to the Gulf region, most of whom are young, unmarried males with little education. Revenues earned by Kerala’s Gulf migrants contribute up to a quarter of the state’s entire annual GDP.  Local agents and recruiters with direct connections to labor supply firms in Dubai can be found in almost every village, promoting the “Gulf Dream” from the back rooms of local shops. A key piece of their marketing strategy relies on nurturing the image of the “gulfan man,” or the individual who becomes fabulously wealthy after migrating to the Gulf and hitting it big.  The gulfan represents the aspirations of so many young males in Kerala that migration and the accumulation of cash are now considered an as an integral part of the male cycle to adulthood.  It is an image widely promoted in Indian films and plays, told and retold in stories, and referenced countless times in everyday conversation.


Captivated by such an alluring cultural image, thousands of young men from Kerala literally go west to Dubai to circumvent the unemployment, crushing poverty, and rigid caste system of their home villages.  Dubai represents an opportunity to forge a new identity, one based on easy money and the power and prestige that go along with it.  And every young man from Kerala has no doubt that he will achieve it, not only betting everything he owns on it, but borrowing from family and friends as well as local money lenders – known as the blade mafia because of their cut throat rates and violent enforcement strategies – in order to achieve it. 


But what they find in Dubai is something vastly different.  Far from walking down the path towards becoming the gulfan man about town, they discover instead that they are part of an army of disposable bodies and exploitable, cheap labor working in the “3D” job industry (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning).  They are the nameless, faceless victims of an environment defined by significant gaps in labor laws, restrictive immigration practices, socially accepted discrimination, poor living conditions, and a slew of human rights abuses.  What they experience in Dubai – the long hours, low pay, limited time off, separation from family and friends, and feelings of discrimination and exploitation – is heaped on top of the growing pressures and problems back home, the central feature of which is a seemingly insurmountable mountain of debt. And all of these problems are so overwhelmingly present thanks to mobile phones and the Internet.  If their wives have a run in with the local money lender or their girlfriends marry another guy, they know it in real time. Everything is proximate; the burdens and pressures of life in Dubai as well as back home ride on their shoulders every day even as their hopes and dreams recede further into the horizon. 


But to return to a place like Kebala as anything other than a gulfan is considered such a sign of abject failure that it is shameful not only for the man but for his entire family as well. And the stereotype of the failedGulf migrant is almost as prevalent as that of the gulfan.  “Gulf Victims” are the pathetic figures who cannot support their family, buy drinks for their friends at the neighborhood bar, put up money for a dowry, or pay off their bank loans.  They are unemployed or relegated to driving a local rickshaw or taxi or, worse even, working as a coolie. They are forced to walk or take the bus to get around and are constantly harassed by local moneylenders.  Their families display no outward signs of material improvement and their houses or plots of land have been put up as collateral to the banks. For many, borrowing money and going deeper into debt in order to return to the Gulf is the only option; it offers one more chance to make it big while allowing them to escape their problems at home.  As a result, migration is rarely a single event for most men from Kebala, but a seemingly endless cycle involving long stretches in Dubai punctuated by brief stays back home.  In the end, the image of the gulfan – an archetype straight out of the worst that Bollywood has to offer – exists only to mock them.  It becomes the measuring stick by which to assess their failure as men.


All of this leads to a variety of psychosocial disorders so widespread and so commonplace that they have been given a name: the Dubai Syndrome. Symptoms associated with the Dubai Syndrome include severe depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation and a host of other mental health issues.  There are also physical symptoms, including everything from headaches and chest pains to discomfort in the heart, diarrhea, skin diseases, and even numbness in certain parts of the body.  The Dubai Syndrome also encompasses the effects on family members back home, which include severe anxiety, emotional hardship, and maladjustment in both spouses and children – all of which lead to additional problems down the line.  As with all psychosocial disorders, the Dubai Syndrome is a complicated mesh of mental and behavioral health issues, physical impacts, and life experiences.  In a very real sense, one could define it as what happens to family members when the pitfalls of economic globalization and transnationalism come crashing down on their household.  It is the ultimate rabbit hole of despondency and despair, and it is the fate of many migrants from places like Kebala before they even show up for their first day of work in Dubai. 


And the problem will almost certainly get worse.  Depression and suicide have long been associated with migration – and the number of international migrants reached 232 million in 2013 (up from 175 million in 2000 and 154 million in 1990).  Ninety percent of those who migrate do so to seek employment, and the UAE is among the top five destinations in the world.  That is fertile ground for any psychosocial disorder associated with migrant workers. 


Yet, to date very little research has focused on suicide and depression among migrant workers in the Gulf.  Since 2002, less than a dozen articles have been published on the problem, and there has not been a single systematic study in the Arabic literature addressing the mental health status of migrant workers in the GCC countries (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain).  Not one. In fact, a study conducted by Osman and Afifi in 2010 revealed that for the period from 1989 to 2008, mental health research accounted for less than 1% of all GCC biomedical research.   Like their fellow citizens, the region’s researchers and biomedical experts tend to shrug their shoulders at the news of yet another suicide among migrant workers in their country.  As one Emirati dismissively told a reporter when asked why Athiraman Kannan jumped from the Burj Khalifa: “He’s probably an expatriate worker – it’s usually them.”