Saudi Crackdown: One Month Later

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Dec 6 2013

Saudi Arabia’s corrective period ended nearly one month ago, precipitating a countrywide crackdown against undocumented migrants. Though Saudi officials forewarned severe punitive action, few predicted the ferocity that has left neighborhoods empty, at least three dead, and several injured.  According to some officials, at least 35,000 men, women, and children are currently detained in facilities or camps across the country. Over 70,000 migrants and their children have already been deported.

Though Saudi’s labor Ministry recently announced “it will continue to accept applications from undocumented foreigners seeking to legalize their status,” – meaning these migrants may only face fines and penalties rather than deportation - the procedure has not been widely circulated. Communication with origin embassies and migrant workers is a recurrent issue in Saudi, in part because of the ad-hoc nature in which most decrees are implemented.  The fear paralyzing even documented migrants is precisely due to mistrust of Saudi authorities, compounded by the harsh pursuit of migrants in the post-amnesty period.

While states have the right to regulate migration, international and regional conventions stipulate a rights-based approach to detainment and deportation. For example, states should avoid detaining undocumented migrants unless absolutely necessary. Otherwise, detainment cannot be indefinite and facilities must provide adequate living conditions. Saudis’ detainment facilities vary in quality throughout the country, but the absence of enforced minimum standards permits atrocious violations to occur regularly. Special facilities were created in anticipation of the mass post-amnesty detention, though many migrants are also effectively stranded in camps.

Collective deportations also violate article 26(2) of the Arab Charter on Human Rights. States have the right to deport undocumented migrants, but must permit migrants to contest their status through case-by-case adjudication and facilitate access to lawyers and translators. Throughout the GCC, Migrants are repatriated by bus or plane loads, few having the opportunity to preside before a judge (unless they also face criminal charges.) The obstructions to recourse were acutely evidenced in the deportation of a Saudi man with a speech impediment to Nigeria. Read more about the deportations of Ethiopian and Yemeni migrants here.

Additionally, the right to individual review cannot abrogate migrants’ right to expedient repatriation. Saudi has issued emergency travel certificates and financed the repatriation of some migrants, but again fails to implement a standardized policy. Some migrants are effectively stranded in detention because of bureaucratic obstacles or their inability to afford a return ticket.

The post-amnesty period disproportionately penalizes migrant workers, with undocumented migrants facing a SR2,000 fine and a possible lifetime-ban in addition to indefinite detainment and deportation.  Though citizens found employing irregular migrants may also face sanctions, including a SR100,000 fine, a maximum two year jail service, or a recruitment ban, such penalties are also often reduced, even for those whose actions approximate trafficking, in part because citizens enjoy greater access to judicial recourse. Employers are also not exposed to the psychological impact of neighborhood raids, despite pervasive complicity in irregular migration.

These issues are not exclusive to the current deportation period, but are chronic transgressions of migrant rights in Saudi and the wider GCC.  Migrant Rights has previously urged GCC states to reform and reconsider these crackdown strategies.

Even if the correct period had adequately provided migrants opportunity to regularize their status, the amnesty cannot justify infractions on migrants’ rights.  Despite public promises to mindfully pursue the post-Amnesty period, the Saudi government as repeatedly disavowed any obligation to migrants’ rights; the Manhoufa incident vividly reflects the Saudi government’s repressive practices. Saudi citizens and Ethiopians clashed in the poor Riyadh neighborhood, after migrants reportedly “barricaded themselves” in protest of the crackdown. The state’s version of events holds that migrants had rioted and initiated the violence, which left one Ethiopian and one Saudi dead. But video contests this version of events, evidencing a group of Saudis dragging an Ethiopian man out of his house and beating him in the streets. Warning, the following videos are extremely troubling:

Since the video’s viral circulation online and across international media outlets, the Saudi government has obviated complete accountability for the incidents.  Col. Badr, head of public relations and media at the Mecca Region Police Department condemned “the rioting by a group of illegals,” stating “the government is not committed toward those who violate the rules and don’t respect regulations of the country.”

The Saudi government flagrantly eschews its responsibility as a host country to protect its inhabitants, redirecting blame to migrants in a narrative reversal popular to government tactics. Though authorities warned against ‘vigilantes,’ its persistent demonization of migrants - as criminals, heretics, cadgers and parasites - alongside the minimal penalties imposed on citizens who violate migrant rights, amounts to state-sanctioned abuse.

Undocumented migrants are used as a scapegoat for rising unemployment figures, depicted as ingrates taking advantage of Saudi’s economic opportunities. Yet the deportations’ detrimental economic consequences evidence the symbiotic nature of migration.  Acknowledging migrants’ economic contributions not only deters their mistreatment by authorities and locals alike, but forces a reconceptualization of undocumented migration, unemployment, and the migration regime; deportations primarily address undocumented or irregular migrants themselves, a derivative of the migration system. The Kafala system, the dual economy, poor employment mobility, inadequate labor protections for migrants, and restrictive access to recourse are all state-manufactured structures inducing the entry of and persistent reliance on migrants into the informal sector.  Further discussion of the Nitaqat’s economic consequences is available in previous Migrant Rights piece, and the current economic effects of deportations are discussed further in this series.

Currently, global attention has fixated on Saudi Arabia but other Gulf countries have launched similarly intrusive raids against migrant workers. Many GCC states renewed commitment to reducing national unemployment, of youths in particularly, in order to avoid conditions that sparked the Middle East’s uprisings.Despite their inefficiency and ineffectiveness, quotas and deportations have the appearance of "doing something" (alongside increases in public provisions) For example, Kuwaiti authorities have conducted mass raids and deportations since the beginning of this year, with several reported instances of police misconduct.  There is little recourse for migrants who face abuse in the course of these activities, in part because their assailants are state representatives, and in part because of the systematic discrimination against migrants in the justice system.

Despite Saudi’s attempt to preempt migration narratives, the mass, recurrently violent, raids and deportations have amplified the conversation on migrant workers. Perspectives are often contentious, but what was previously marginalized in political and social discourse – limited to state propaganda or dry retelling of expat crimes  - now features daily in local Saudi papers. The op-eds and commentary penned by citizens and expats alike vary in their appreciation for migrants’ human rights (as they do in any country), but there is a growing recognition of migrants’ importance and the injustices of the migration system.  The incidents have also sparked action at home and in the diaspora to encourage governments to protect their citizens abroad.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East