French cities ditch World Cup festivities to protest Qatar’s record on human rights, environment
With a little over a month left until the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar, a string of French cities – including Paris, Lille, Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Marseille – have announced they are boycotting the tournament and will not set up the customary fan zones with giant TV screens to promote it. The protest is directly aimed at Gulf state host Qatar and the steep human and environmental costs of the event that activists say Doha is doing everything to hide.
It all started in the northeastern French city of Strasbourg last week, when city officials decided to opt out of any celebrations supporting the world’s largest and most popular football (soccer) tournament. There would be no fan zones and no large-screen TV’s in the city during the November 20 to December 18 World Cup, authorities said, citing Qatar’s poor treatment of migrant workers and its disregard of the event’s environmental impact.
“It is impossible for us to ignore the many alarms from NGOs about the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers,” Strasbourg’s Mayor Jeanne Barseghian told “20 minutes”, a free daily commuter newspaper.
“Strasbourg, the capital of Europe and seat of the European Court of Human Rights […] cannot turn a blind eye to human rights being flouted to this extent.”
She went on to say concerns over climate change were another reason for the boycott. “With climate change being such a palpable reality now – with fires, [food] shortages and catastrophes – organising the World Cup in a desert is even more of an aberration. It’s an environmental disaster.”
The northern French port city of Lille followed suit over the weekend and was joined by Bordeaux, Marseille and then Paris on Tuesday.
“It would be really difficult to have a party while forgetting the dead bodies and the humanitarian situation in the aberration that is the World Cup in Qatar,” Bordeaux’s Mayor Pierre Hurmic told broadcaster BFMTV on Monday.
Criticised since the start
The Qatar World Cup project has been mired in controversy ever since the desert nation’s host bid was confirmed back in 2010. The FIFA voting process that led to its selection was hit by allegations of corruption before the focus turned to Qatar itself and why it might be a problematic World Cup host.
Early on in the project, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch raised the alarm over the abuse of migrant workers who were building a “state-of-the-art stadium” for the 2022 tournament, including allegations of forced labour and cramped, insalubrious living conditions.
According to Amnesty, migrant workers account for more than half of Qatar’s population of 3 million and 90 percent of its total work force. Many of them, from impoverished South Asian nations like India, Nepal and the Philippines, arrived to work on the $220 billion World Cup infrastructure project. Despite Qatar being the fourth-richest country in the world, a migrant worker typically earns €1.30 per hour while working long hours and an average of six days a week.
The two right groups have also reported a staggeringly high death rate among the migrant workers – which they now say is in the thousands – but have been unable to verify the numbers since Qatar authorities “have not made comprehensible data on the deaths publicly available”.
Qatar has rejected the claims, saying the number of work-related deaths only amount to a handful. But a 2021 investigative report by the Guardian confirmed that at least 6,751 migrants from just five countries (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) died in Qatar between 2010 and 2020.
The newspaper warned that the real death toll was believed to be “significantly higher”, however, since it did not include data from the Philippines and Kenya – which both have a significant number of citizens in Qatar.
In the run-up to the World Cup, and amid the mounting criticism of its treatment of migrant workers, Qatar pledged – among other things – to get rid of its controversial kafala system.
The kafala system is a type of sponsorship programme that requires an employer to consent to the migrant worker entering or leaving the country, where they live and their ability to change jobs. If an employer reports a migrant worker as missing, he or she is considered to have “absconded” and automatically becomes undocumented and can be arrested. According to Human Rights Watch, many migrant workers get their passports confiscated by their Qatari employers and thereby become trapped, in sometimes slave-like conditions.
Although Qatar has now had five years to phase out the system, it is still very much in practice.
“This World Cup has been supporting an infrastructure that has been built on the most exploitative working conditions you can imagine,” said Pete Pattisson, a video and photojournalist who has documented migrant workers in Qatar for the past nine years, in comments to FRANCE 24’s Perspective programme on Wednesday.
Carbon footprint and ‘creative accounting’
The environmental impact of the upcoming World Cup has also become a major sticking point.
Qatar has touted the tournament as the first-ever carbon-neutral event in its history, talking far and wide about the carbon-neutral technologies used during construction, the solar-powered air-conditioning that will cool the eight stadiums, its electric metro system, and the fact that visitors will not need to travel internally since the stadiums and other buildings are so close together.
But a May report by the European non-profit Carbon Market Watch (CMW) dismissed Qatar’s zero-carbon footprint claims, accusing the country of applying “creative accounting” to meet its goals.
CMW cited, in particular, Qatar’s calculations on how much carbon was emitted during the construction of the stadiums, saying it could be as much as eight times higher than Doha has reported.
It also shot down Qatar’s purported emission-absorbing “tree and turf nursery” as “not credible”, saying the absorption is “unlikely to be permanent in these artificial and vulnerable green spaces”. One clear example is the grass, which – once the event is over – will have to be replaced by artificial turf due to the searing hot climate.
“Claims that the 2022 FIFA World Cup will not contribute additional carbon emissions to the atmosphere are completely unrealistic. The data already available today show that, contrary to predictions, the Qatari tournament’s climate impact will be unambiguously negative,” CMW said.
And the knock-on effects won’t stop there, given the vast construction projects currently under way. In addition to the newly built stadiums, Qatar has expanded Doha airport, built an array of new hotels, and extended its rail and highway networks.
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