Subproject 3

Subproject 3:

Migration, Intersectionality and Institutional Interaction: African Migrants’ Experiences in the United Arab Emirates

Principal Investigator:
Prof Dr Michaela Pelican (University of Cologne)

Saleh Seid Adem, M.A. (University of Cologne)

The Arab Gulf States are among the most important target destinations for global labour migration. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, international workers represent over 85 % of the population. While the majority come from South and Southeast Asia, the number of migrants from various parts of Africa has been steadily increasing since the 1980s. A key institution for regulating labour migration is the patronage-based kafala or sponsorship system, which determines the entry, employment and residence of migrants in the Gulf States. While in principle all migrants are confronted with the same system of migration control and the labour market is geared to international workers, previous studies show that migrants’ experiences and strategies vary significantly. This is the entry point of the planned project, which examines the interplay between international mobility and institutional dynamics by applying a decidedly intersectional and actor-centred approach. Specifically, the project aims to understand how the interaction of migrant actors and representatives of institutions in the UAE is shaped by different vectors of inequality, and how the actors’ social positionings are mutually construed and flexibly and strategically negotiated. Going beyond existing research, the project focuses on institutions of migrant self-organisation and considers the kafala system not only in terms of its restrictive dimensions but also in terms of how migrants productively incorporate it into their strategies. In order to investigate these questions, the project focuses on migrants from Africa (specifically from Ethiopia and Cameroon), a group that has received little attention in previous research on the Arab Gulf states. Methodologically, the project integrates anthropological and sociological approaches and uses a mixed methods design, which includes, among other things, auto-ethnography as a central method for researching intersectionality. By pursuing a decidedly intersectional analysis of migrant experiences of the kafala system, the project promises to contribute to an intricate understanding of the interplay of international mobility and institutional dynamics.

Members of subproject 3

Prof Dr Michaela Pelican

Principal Investigator (TP3)


Saleh Seid Adem, M.A.

Researcher (TP3)


Nico Wilkins

Research Assistant (TP3)