Ethiopian Labor Markets and the "Free Visa" System in Qatar

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Journal of the Society for Applied Anthropology


Sociology & Anthropology


Labor migrants in Qatar and neighboring states are regulated and governed by the kafala, or sponsorship system. By law, all foreign migrants are locked to a particular sponsor-employer for the duration of their stay. While the kafala has been a central feature in analyses of migration throughout the region, little attention has been devoted to the informal and widespread "free visa" system that has arisen in the shadows of the kafala. Through a mixed methods approach utilizing the region's first representative sample of low-income labor migrants, a focus group with "free visa" holders in the Ethiopian community, and a set of semi-structured interviews with Ethiopian migrants, this paper explores the experiences and perspectives of Ethiopian migrants in the "free visa" system in Qatar. The "free visa" is neither free nor legal, and it produces significant vulnerabilities for transnational migrants who work under this arrangement. While those vulnerabilities characterize the lived experience of "free visa" holders, many transnational migrants opt for the "free visa" in order to secure the freedom to choose their employer and abandon exploitative situations. We conclude that the "free visa" system can be understood as a byproduct of the strictures of the sponsorship system.