Over 700 Pakistani workers have been stranded in Saudi Arabia since the end of 2011. The victims of a Turkish company’s fraud, the men are prohibited from working legally and from traveling outside of the kingdom.
The laborers were recruited by the Turkish company MAPA Construction and Trade and paid hefty fees to migrate to Saudi. But once they arrived, the men were informed there was not enough work for them. The laborers were told to “wait” until the company needed them – an impossible request as migrants can only work for the sponsor who issues their visas, and illegal workers risk severe penalties. In any case, the laborers soon learned their visas were fraudulent. According to MAPA, Saudi managers and employers issued false visas for non-existent work and solely responsible for the fraud.
The Saudi associates were arrested, but MAPA continues to evade to accountability. One manager indicated the company would help expedite the deportation process, but MAPA has still made no significant effort to support the stranded workers legally or financially. They have not indicated any intention to compensate the migrants for their expenses or their time.
Though the Pakistani workers were entirely unaware of the fraud, their passports were confiscated by the Governor House Police. Without their passports, the men are unable to legally transfer their sponsorship to other companies or to return home. Last month, one of the workers died after falling from a roof during construction. His body has not yet been repatriated to his family.
Faraz Omar, an Indian expatriate, recounted a similar experience during which he and 15 other migrants were paralyzed in Saudi for over two years. Omar and 16 other Indian migrants were restricted from traveling and working for another company because their employer falsely lodged them as “huroob” (runaways).The migrants filed a case which was ruled in their favor but remained tied up in the court system for over two years. They were unable to transfer their sponsorship during this period and consequently unable to pursue legal employment. The workers were also informed that if they were repatriated, they would be banned from working in Saudi Arabia for three years as per the kingdom’s policy towards deported migrants. The sponsorship system’s framework consequently penalizes workers even when the state recognizes they are not in the wrong.
Omar argues that sponsors often claim to have been cheated by middle men, when in reality they exploit the visa system to increase the number of workers available to them. Unscrupulous employers attempt to circumvent the limit on visa sponsorships by illegitimately claiming employees as “huroob” in order to ‘legally’ sponsor more workers in their place. Workers rarely have access to legal instruments necessary to successfully challenge these claims.
In mid-february, the Pakistani embassy pledged to resolve the issue within a month – yet the migrants remain in much the same predicament. The embassy has not provided significant assistance to the workers since the outset of their troubles. On March 5, the Pakistani ambassador to Riyadh briefly addressed the issue with the new Governor of Riyadh. The Governor made only vague promises to address the issue.
Saudi Arabia recently announced an amnesty for illegal workers, but repatriation still requires Pakistan’s diligent coordination. Pakistan must be careful to avoid the legal and financial difficulties migrants often face in attempting to benefit from amnesty periods.