On March 29, 2017, the Saudi Ministry of Interior launched a campaign to track, detain and deport what it considers “violators of Residency, Labor and Border Security laws.” The “Homeland without Illegals” campaign launched with a 120-day long amnesty period during which undocumented migrant workers could correct their status in order to leave the country without penalty. Once the amnesty period concluded, security forces began targeting undocumented workers in a series of forceful raids that are still ongoing at the time of writing.
According to statistics released last week, the Ministry of Interior has arrested over 670,000 migrant workers since the amnesty ended. As of February 26, 2018, over 160,000 were deported while around 13,000 are currently held in detention centres.
Security forces documented the raids on TV stations and social media. MBC TV reports show security forces storming homes without court orders, only because they suspected they housed undocumented workers.
Though the crackdown intensified when the amnesty ended, the raids continued while the amnesty was still in effect. Alhayat newspaper reported that around 100,000 undocumented workers were detained during the amnesty period.
Many workers were not able to leave during the amnesty due to bureaucratic slowness and/or legal issues.
This is not the first time the Saudi government has launched a campaign to round-up undocumented workers. The violent 2013 campaign, where Saudi authorities deported 2.5 million workers, was fraught with human rights abuses, including physical and verbal attacks by the Saudi security forces, confiscating money and personal belonging and inhumane detention conditions. Similar human rights abuses have been documented in this latest amnesty.
Although the amnesty gave some stranded workers reprieve, its premise is that the irregular status of a worker is his or her own fault, though in reality most workers have little power over their visa status. In this campaign, undocumented workers were only offered exit visas, while previous campaigns allowed workers to transfer iqamas (residency IDs) to a new sponsor and remain in the country.
According to the Ministry of Interior, 733,000 workers left the country during the amnesty period. Though exempt from exit visa fees and other penalties, workers often left the country with loss and sorrow; many became undocumented because the Kafala system and labour laws do not offer them adequate protection against unscrupulous recruitment and employment practices. A domestic worker who left during the amnesty told the official Saudi TV station al-Ikhbariya that her sponsor never issued her an iqama (residency ID) when she moved to the country 11 years ago. His negligence made her status illegal for all those years.
Thousands of workers in the construction industry also lost their legal status because their companies failed to renew their iqamas, including employees of the embattled Bin Laden Group and Saudi Oger firms. Filipino workers from Saudi Oger were turned away from their Embassy in Riyadh, told that the amnesty does not apply to them since they were legally “considered stranded workers whose residency permits were expired.”
Though the financial struggles of the Bin Laden Group and Saudi Oger made the headlines, workers of many other construction companies faced similar situations. The Saudi Gazette reported on a sinking construction company in Dammam which could not afford to renew residency permits for hundreds of workers, rendering them illegal. The company also refused to return workers’ worker's passports or pay out owed salaries.
While a large number of workers who left during the amnesty forfeited their rights to owed dues, many stayed on to ensure they receive their unpaid salaries.
Muhammad Farouq, speaking on behalf of about 50 of his co-workers in a construction company, said they were planning to stay to follow up with their labour dispute case. Farouq and his co-workers claim their sponsor has not paid them since 2015. Some are waiting to get paid up to 100,000 riyals ($26,666). They were still waiting for the case proceeding but to no avail. Farooq said that he and workers are living in miserable conditions after they ran out of money and that their residency ID and health insurance expired. They are depending on family and friends' charity and gifts.
“I have received some money from my wife who had to sell her gold back home, just for me to stay here and follow the case,” Farouq added.
The amnesty did give Arumagam, a stranded Indian worker from Tamil Nadu, some hope. Arumagam had worked long hours for a small salary as a porter (‘hamali’) in the farmers market, eventually running away from his abusive sponsor because of limited options to redress his grievances through legal channels. When a car hit him at his new job, causing him to lose his right leg, he needed to return home for care. But because his sponsor had filed an absconding complaint against him, he couldn’t leave the country. He thought he was doomed to stay in the country indefinitely. The amnesty allowed him, and other workers, to rescind labour complaints against them and obtain an exit visa.
Two-thirds of Indian migrant workers who benefited from the amnesty period were reportedly in legal conditions similar to Arumagam's, stranded because of absconding complaints filed against them.
Government Spin & Media Narratives
Official rhetoric simultaneously emphasized the campaign’s humanitarian dimension while using obscene language to describe migrants. Saudis and non-Saudis were reminded that the amnesty is a gift from the government to illegal workers. Meanwhile, Masoud al-Udwani, head of Jeddah Police, described the security raids against undocumented workers’ houses as “cleansing raids” and called their houses wakr -- a word in Arabic associated with the places where criminal gangs and prostitution rings reside and meet. Talal al-Shalhoub, in a statement to MBC FM said “I am surprised that any Saudi would hire a runaway worker … those workers carry infectious diseases and HIV.”
Deported Ethiopians told AP that most of them were beaten, and those who attempted to escape were shot and wounded. Many said that security forces confiscated their money and belongings for their own gain. One deportee, Sadiq Ahmad, said that his prison cell was “so dirty that some of us were severely sick. It was like a toilet.”
Op-ed pieces in Arabic-language Saudi newspapers also used coarse language, accusing undocumented workers of being criminals. Amal bint Fahad called undocumented workers evil-minded. Dr. Muhammad Al-Uwain considered them responsible for “theft, kidnapping, physical attacks, drug trafficking, alcohol selling and prostitution.” An Aleqtisadiya editorial called them dangerous as they “attack citizens, expats, police and security forces physically.”
Saudi Gazette and its previous editor-in-chief, Khaled Almaeena, deviated from the official storyline. Saudi Gazette published several reports that covered migrant workers’ plight and struggle with the unfair kafala system, many of which were referenced in this article. Almaeena used his weekly columns in Saudi Gazette (in English) and Makkah Newspaper (in Arabic) to defend migrant workers, criticizing Kafala system and calling for authorities to punish those he described as “crooked” sponsors.
Almaeena is the exception to the accepted narrative. Overall, erring employers are given a free pass, their accountability - whether it be in providing fair and legal employment conditions, or executing their bare-minimum responsibilities to renew workers’ residency permits and pay them on time - is glossed over. The campaign presents the deportation of ‘illegal’ workers as the solution to the country’s economic and social woes, emphasizing their criminality to deflect attention from the policies and the people responsible for pushing workers into irregularity.