End The Death Penalty Research report

Worked to Death: A study on migrant workers and capital punishment

Foreign nationals, and within this group migrant workers, are a population that disproportionately faces the death penalty around the world. The data and statistics gathered by Reprieve and Migrant CARE for this report show that migrant workers as a sub-set of the foreign national population are at grave risk of human rights violations related to the death penalty, including arbitrary deprivation of the right to life in the context of unlawful death sentences and executions.

This report focuses on: states that receive migrant workers (‘receiving states’), in particular the states that make up the Association of South East Asian Nations or ASEAN (‘South East Asian states’) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (‘Gulf states’), and on states from which migrant workers travel to work (‘sending states’).

In the Gulf states, foreign nationals are overwhelmingly and disproportionately represented on death rows and are disproportionately executed, particularly for drug offences. Within this group, women are disproportionately represented in some states.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, foreign nationals are similarly disproportionately represented on death rows. In Indonesia over the past 10 years, foreign nationals have been disproportionately executed, particularly for drug offences. 90% of those executed in Indonesia for drug offences in the past decade were foreign nationals. According to data from the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 2008 and 2021 there were 583 Indonesian migrant workers who faced the death penalty in 7 receiving states. 392 of those individuals escaped the death penalty, and 6 have been executed. Legal proceedings are ongoing in 188 of those cases.

Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are the two receiving states with the highest numbers of death penalty cases of Indonesian migrant workers. Migrant CARE’s findings show that of the migrants who face the death penalty in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, 72% are women, of whom 66% are charged with murder, 14% with drug offences and 14% with allegations of witchcraft.

In relation to sending states such as Nigeria and Pakistan our research shows that migrant workers are often not afforded an adequate standard of consular assistance by their home countries in breach of international law. Adequate consular assistance can make the difference between life and death for a foreign national facing the death penalty.

Our research also shows that the disproportionate application of the death penalty to foreign nationals and migrant workers in particular can be attributed to the fact that migrant workers are in a particularly vulnerable position due to various interconnected factors, including a lack of access to legal representation in an unfamiliar jurisdiction, language barriers, socio-economic disadvantage, social isolation, discrimination, and a lack of access to adequate consular assistance due to failings by both receiving and sending states.

In addition, often having or perceived as having access to passports and therefore the ability to travel internationally, but being typically poor, isolated and without local support networks, migrant workers are vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking and being coerced into committing crimes which carry sentences of death. This is particularly true for migrant women, a large proportion of whom work in private homes, informal sectors and sectors of work which are mostly unregulated.

There is a legal framework, underpinned by both international law and regional human rights instruments, which is intended to uphold the rights of migrant workers, including the non-punishment principle which is meant to protect victims of human trafficking from being punished for acts that arose from their trafficking. Death sentences for victims of trafficking are the starkest violations of that principle.

The fact that hundreds of foreign nationals, including migrant workers, have been executed in breach of international law in recent years confirms that these protections are not widely adhered to and/or not implemented effectively.

Drawing on examples of best practice by both sending and receiving states, the report concludes by making recommendations on the following issues:

  • the obligations of receiving states to notify migrant workers of their right to consular assistance and to provide access to consular assistance; and the obligation of sending states to provide adequate consular assistance to migrant workers facing the death penalty;
  • the obligations of sending and receiving states to safeguard against the arbitrary deprivation of the right to life in death penalty cases in line with international law;
  • the need for all sending and receiving states to ratify the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and to ensure protection from abuse and exploitation by employers of migrant workers and other stakeholders such as recruitment agencies;
  • the obligations of sending and receiving states to identify and protect victims of human trafficking and uphold the non-punishment principle; and
  • the obligations of sending states to implement rehabilitation programmes for migrant workers who have been released from death row and their family members, and the family members of those who have been executed.