Fact check: How many people died for the Qatar World Cup?
Jan D. Walter | Matt Ford
November 16, 2022
As the World Cup in Qatar draws closer, criticism mounts. Human rights activists, politicians, fans and media speak of 6,500, even 15,000, alleged deaths in relation to the soccer tournament. But are the numbers correct?
Since Qatar won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup there has been a debate over its treatment of foreign workers and the human cost of the event. There are various estimates of how many workers have died on the World Cup construction sites in Qatar, but the true figure is difficult to ascertain.
This fact check looks at figures published by FIFA, the Qatari authorities, human rights groups and the media, which have consistently been referred to as fact, misleading or even false. The authors are aware that these figures only convey a vague impression of the suffering allegedly endured by migrant workers in Qatar.
Claim: "The World Cup in Qatar has cost the lives of 6,500 — even as many as 15,000 — migrant workers."
Although these figures have been used to back up this claim multiple times since these reports were published, neither Amnesty International nor The Guardian ever claimed that all these people died on stadium construction sites, or indeed even in the explicit context of the 2022 World Cup. Both figures refer merely to non-Qataris of various nationalities and in various occupations who have died in Qatar in the past decade.
The figure of 15,021 quoted by Amnesty International was obtained from official statistics from the Qatari authorities themselves, and refers to the number of foreigners who died in the country between 2010 and 2019. Between 2011 and 2020, it was 15,799.
15,000 dead — but not only for the World Cup's sake
This includes not only poorly-qualified construction workers, security personnel or gardeners who may or may not have been employed on World Cup-related projects; but also foreign teachers, doctors, engineers and other business people.
Many did come from developing countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh, while others arrived from middle or high income nations. The Qatari statistics don't allow any further, more detailed breakdown.
As for The Guardian, journalist Pete Pattisson and his team based their total figure of 6,751 on official statistics from the governments of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, whose citizens make up a significant proportion of migrant workers in Qatar — in particular poorly-qualified workers.
Qatar does not deny either figure. Indeed, in response to The Guardian, the country's Government Communications Office said: "Although each loss of life is upsetting, the mortality rate among these communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population." But is that true?
Claim: "The mortality rate among these communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population."
DW fact check: Misleading
According to the Qatari government, 1,500 deaths per year among two million people is a normal average mortality rate.
Firstly, it should be stated that, according to the World Health Organization, general mortality rates for migrant workers in Qatar are lower than they are in their home countries. In fact, even the mortality rate among Qatari citizens is higher than that among migrant workers in Qatar.
However, given that migrant workers in Qatar are not representative of the general populations in their home countries or in Qatar, such figures are misleading.
Migrant workers in Qatar are fundamentally healthy upon arrival
For instance, the proportion of small children and elderly people — demographic groups with the highest mortality rates — among migrant workers in Qatar is clearly incomparable with that among a general population of any country.
Furthermore, migrant workers in Qatar, whatever their background or job, are generally healthy people who have to pass a whole range of medical checks in order to obtain a Qatari visa, filtering out potential applicants with infectious diseases such as AIDS/HIV, hepatitis B and C, syphilis or tuberculosis.
Such statistics also don't include migrant workers who pass away after returning to their home countries. In Nepal in the past 10 years, for instance, authorities have recorded a significant increase in the number of fatal cases of kidney failure among men aged 20-50 – many of whom had just returned from working in the Middle East.
The hard work in the Gulf weather conditions, combined with low quantity and low quality drinking water, as reported by those affected, would explain this, according to health experts in Nepal.
Claim: "There have only been three work-related deaths on World Cup stadium construction sites"
DW fact check: Misleading
Both FIFA and the Qatari World Cup organizing committee insist that only three people have died as a direct result of their work on World Cup construction sites. FIFA and Qatar's official definition of "work-related deaths" refers to fatalities on construction sites for the seven brand new stadiums, as well as training facilities Qatar has built in the last decade. The three include two Nepalese men at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah and one Briton at the Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan.
Widening the definition to "non-work-related deaths" not directly linked to construction work, officials acknowledge 37 further fatalities, including, for instance, two Indians and an Egyptian who died in a road traffic accident while traveling from work to their accommodation in November 2019.
However, the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar has unleashed a veritable construction boom in the Gulf state, which goes beyond just the stadiums. A whole range of projects linked to the tournament have been undertaken, including new motorways, hotels, a new metro system, an airport expansion and an entire new city in Lusail, just north of Doha. Indeed, even at the peak of construction, FIFA claims that only slightly more than 30,000 workers were actually employed on specific World Cup sites.
The official acknowledgement of three deaths, therefore, discounts fatalities, which may have occurred on other construction sites which likely wouldn't have existed without the World Cup. It also fails to take into account thousands of documented cases of migrant workers dying in their accommodation outside of shift hours, for which no adequate explanations have been provided.
According to research by The Guardian and Amnesty International, the latter using figures provided by the government of Bangladesh, Qatari doctors ascribe around 70% of fatalities to "natural deaths" caused by acute cardio-respiratory failures.
However, for epidemiologists, heart and breathing failures are not causes of death but results. The cause of a cardiac arrest could be a heart attack or other irregularity, while respiratory failure could be caused by an allergic reaction or poisoning.
But no such explanations are given. Indeed, in a 2022 documentary series by German public broadcaster ARD, Qatari doctors even report being forced to fill out death certificates as such.
As early as 2014, in an independent report commissioned by the Qatari government, the global law firm DLA Piper criticized this practice and "strongly recommended" that the government "permit autopsies or post-mortems in cases of unexpected or sudden death." In late 2021, the International Labor Organization (ILO) also criticized the lack of adequate documentation of accidents and causes of death.
According to experts interviewed by Amnesty International, precise causes of death go undetermined in only 1% of cases in "properly managed health systems." Furthermore, invasive autopsies are rarely necessary. In around 85% of cases, verbal autopsies involving witnesses or acquaintances of the deceased are sufficient.
Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Fairsquare regularly speak to such witnesses, whose reports suggest that heat stroke, exhaustion or even minor illnesses that go untreated are at the root of many sudden unexplained deaths.
In conclusion, figures referring to fatalities in connection with the 2022 World Cup vary depending on definition, including of where migrant workers came from, where and when they died, and whether their deaths can be described as work-related or not. However, given the inconsistencies and shortcomings in Qatar's own official data, a concrete conclusion is impossible to ascertain, which in turn raises the question as to why exactly the Qatari authorities are unable to provide reliable information.
Thanks to Ellen Wesemüller from Amnesty International, Pete Pattisson from The Guardian and Nicholas McGeehan from Fairsquare for their insights into their work, and for helping us understand their findings. Unfortunately, numerous requests for comment to authorities in Qatar, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka remained unanswered at the time of publication.