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Contention Over Migrant's Death in Saudi Detention Center

On March 11, 2014

The death of a migrant in a Saudi holding facility last week highlights the dangers of mass deportation campaigns against undocumented workers. Saudi authorities allege the migrant was killed during a riot, which also injured nine others. But Yemeni forums and news-outlets hold that the riot erupted when migrants demanded officials hasten their repatriation, and that 10 Yemenis were killed in resultant clashes.  Saudi police also justified the use of force against purported rioters in November 2013, when an Ethiopian migrant was killed in the Manhoufa neighborhood.  But witnesses and video footages of the incident challenged this record of events, suggesting instead that citizens and security forces had ignited the violence.

But even relenting to the official account of events still raises questions about the causes of the alleged rioting, which was likely related to the holding facility’s conditions and the overall deportation process. Reports from other detention centers indicate that the conditions imprisoned migrants endure contravene international and regional migration conventions. These include:

1. Unsafe Living Conditions

Though a number of new facilities were created with the nationalization scheme in mind - one boasting an “unlimited” capacity – overcrowding remains an acute issue. Photos of one facility housing over 35,000 migrants evidence the cramped conditions, which have had deleterious effects on migrant workers’ health and well-being.  Human Rights Watch (HRW) collected numerous accounts from migrants recently detained in Saudi’s facilities:


“In the first detention center in Riyadh [the Saudi capital], there was so little food, we fought over it so the strongest ate the most,” he said. “Guards told us to face the wall and then beat our backs with metal rods. In the second place, there were two toilets for 1,200 people, including dozens of children.”


“Saladu, 35, said the Saudi authorities detained her for nine days with her two children, ages seven and nine, and her sister’s three children before deporting them: “The room we stayed in with 150 other women and children was extremely hot and there was no air conditioning. The children were sick. My son was vomiting and his stomach was very bloated. There were no mattresses, people just slept on the floor.”

These accounts are consistent with previous reports of Saudi deportation centers, which have been directly linked to a number of deaths.  In 2010, five Ethiopian migrants died in a detention center due to overcrowding and in 2009, a Filipino worker was killed due to unsanitary conditions. Filipino inmates documented their experiences by sending text messages to rights group Migrante International:

"It's too hot and cramped, we cannot drink here, all of us are getting sick (with) fever, we cannot stand up because our bodies are too weak Yesterday, one of us collapsed," one of the messages read.

2. Indefinite Detention

Migrants can be stranded in detention centers anywhere from weeks, to months, to years - and they often will not know which. In most cases, migrants can only leave holding facilities when they are deported home. But inefficient and unsympathetic bureaucracies can delay the deportation process indefinitely; migrants are not provided with a timeline for the pre-deportation proceedings, which include processing identity documents, procuring travel funds, and arranging repatriation flights. Migrants are consequently denied the right to expedient deportation. In one case recorded by HRW, a Somali migrant was detained in five different detention facilities for 57 days before being deported.

3. Lack of individual review

Despite the protracted deportation process, most migrants do not have the opportunity to contest their status. Under international law, migrants should have access to a translator, legal representative, and the right to challenge their deportation before a courtThis means that migrants who are victims of trafficking or employer abuse cannot seek reprieve nor recover their dues. It also means that migrants who are wrongly detained face severe difficulties obtaining a release; this became strikingly evident in November 2013, when a speech-disabled Saudi Arabian man was wrongly imprisoned and deported to Nigeria.

Summary deportations also do not take into account refugee status.  Over 12,000 Somalis were deported in January and February alone. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which has not been allowed access to the prisoners, expects another 30,000 to be deported shortly.

The detention process naturally breeds discontent, yet migrants are expected to be tranquil in the face of severe rights violations. 'Rioting' is a purposely vague term that can be used to describe any form of resistance and to justify a wide range of abuses. These issues are GCC wide, as many states have implemented nationalization schemes with similar consequences. once again urges a rights-based approach to nationalization schemes, noting that neither states' right to regulate migration nor the provision of an amnesty period can abrogate the rights of undocumented migrants.