02/03/2012 11:02 GMT | Updated 01/05/2012 06:12 BST

Bahrain's Catch 22

Carol Melrose arrived in Bahrain and started her career in marketing and public relations almost 21 years ago, just after the first Gulf War.

"Bahrain was just was trying to emerge as a place for business," Melrose, a 55-year-old citizen of the UK, told me.

Excited about her new opportunity, Melrose worked in various companies and by 1997 started her own business, organising events and carrying out public relations functions for various clients.

Things went well until 2009, when, Melrose said, some clients failed to pay for services she had provided. Around the same time, a business venture that she had invested in failed. She was left with substantial debt. Melrose said that only when airport authorities didn't allow her to leave Bahrain for a business trip did she discover that the creditors and international banks had filed travel bans against her.

Determined to pay off the debts, she immediately took a job.

But when she tried to renew her residency and work permit in March 2010 so she could work at that job, immigration authorities refused, citing the travel bans.

Melrose is one of dozens of white-collar expatriate workers the authorities have banned from leaving Bahrain for debt-related reasons, while also refusing to renew their residency and work permits. In this bizarre Catch-22 situation, it is impossible for them to earn money in Bahrain or to work outside Bahrain to repay the debts.

The travel ban problem affects an unknown number of workers. Mohan Kumar, India's ambassador to Bahrain, recently said that a dozen or so Indian nationals face essentially the same problem Melrose does. "India would like the Bahraini government to provide these people with the freedom of economic activity so that they can take care of themselves," he told Gulf Weekly. It is very important to allow these people to work.

Since February 2011 the brutal government response to pro-democracy demonstrations has captured the attention of the media and human rights activists around the world. The ruling family's fierce desire to remain in power unchecked may explain the gross human rights violations against suspected opponents. But there appears to be no rationale at all for this uncompromising stance toward foreign workers who are unable to leave and unable to find jobs that might allow them to pay off their debts.

When I met with Melrose and several other expatriates in similar situations - people who had lived and worked legally in Bahrain for years - they told us that the travel ban and the restrictions that kept them from working had driven them into penury, without the resources even to pay for basic needs such as housing and health care. Melrose said that both the Commerce Ministry and a judge vouched for her when she sought to renew her work permit but that both these verifications were ignored at the immigration office.

Bahraini law allows banks and other creditors to apply to civil courts for travel bans to prevent Bahrainis and non-Bahrainis alike from leaving the country until they repay outstanding personal or business debts.

The expatriates I met with don't challenge the fact that they owe business debts. In fact, they want to pay off those debts as soon as possible. In August 2011 Human Rights Watch wrote to Bahrain's Foreign Affairs Ministry asking it to remedy this ridiculous situation and make it possible for those with debts to work - in Bahrain or elsewhere - precisely so that they can pay off those debts. But the authorities have not responded.

The Economic Development Board, an official Bahraini body tasked with overseeing economic strategy and attracting investment to Bahrain, boasts, "If you want to make it happen for your business, take a look at Bahrain."

But if Bahrain wants to encourage business people and expatriate workers to "take a look at Bahrain," authorities should immediately end a policy that is punitive, arbitrary, and grossly disproportionate. They should come up with an approach that respects the basic rights of creditors and debtors, and that no longer puts people in an impossible situation.

Unable to travel or work for three years now, Melrose has no more fondness for Bahrain. "I just want to get out of here," she said.