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Overview: Administrative Detention of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia

A brief review of the laws and available data pertaining to Saudi Arabia's detention of migrant workers with irregular status.

On July 22, 2019

The administrative detention of migrants in Saudi Arabia is regulated through a number of laws (labour, residency and border security) as well as various Royal and ministerial decisions. The Ministry of Interior (MoI) has issued various decisions and memos that describe the violations and respective punishments specific to migrants, including detention by the MoI’s arrest officers. The main violations that lead to detention and administrative deportation are:

  1. Labour law violators, such as those who do not work for their sponsor, or those whose sponsor has filed an absconding case against them.
  2. Residency law violators who overstayed their residency permit or visa.
  3. Border Security law violators who crossed into the Kingdom irregularly. 
  4. Any migrants that transport, employ, harbour or provide accommodation or any assistance to labour, residency or border security law violators. 

The government’s instructions also permit ‘arrest officers’ to arrest migrants who do not carry their IDs when they are outside their home or workplaceAlthough arrest officers are not permitted to detain any migrant arbitrarily or raid their homes, anecdotal evidence from news agencies and rights groups indicate potential violations. It is difficult to estimate the frequency of these violations because reliable data is scarce.

Royal and Ministerial Decisions

Royal Decree No. 42, 1984, which regulates visitors to Saudi Arabia with Hajj, Umra, visit or work visas. 

Royal Decree No. 24, 2013, on the rules regarding migrants’ violation of laws

Ministry of Interior Decision No 3829, 2013, which details the punishment of migration-related violations 

Arrest Officers

The officers who have the authority to arrest migrants varies from region to region. Mostly, they consist of members of one or all of the following groups, all of which operate under the direction of the Public Security Department:

Detained migrants often have little control over a violation that leaves them liable to arrest. The kafala system and the overarching labour migration system grants sponsors disproportionate control over workers, including the sole authority to renew residency and visa documents of the workers, and uncontested power to invalidate these same documents. For example, if a sponsor neglects to issue or renew a worker’s Residency ID, the worker’s status immediately becomes irregular. Saudi laws also permit sponsors to file absconding complaints without evidence. A worker charged with absconding immediately becomes irregular.  Migrants who work under “free-visa” schemes, whereby they pay a Saudi sponsor to renew their documents but work freelance, are also considered irregular. 

The Administrative Procedures of Detentions

While some irregular migrants are placed in jails in the Kingdom, the majority are sent to administrative detention centres which exist throughout the country. The Detention centres are run by the General Department of Expatriate Affairs (GDEA) under the General Department of Prisons with the assistance of the General Department of Passports (all of which are within the MoI). 

Detained migrants are often unaware of the reasons for their detention. Detainees are not sent to trial in the Ministry of Justice courts but are investigated by Investigation Units formed by the arresting officers. It’s unclear what the parameters of these investigations are, and investigations can take months. 

After the investigation, migrants are referred to the Committees of the GDEA for another investigation. The Committee, which acts like administrative courts, issues a verdict. Those who receive a deportation verdict are sent to the GDEA’s Travel Unit Team to finalise their travel procedures and have their fingerprint scanned. They are blacklisted and prevented from reentering the country. The GDEA Committees’ rules of conduct are outlined in a Ministerial Decree that was unable to obtain. 


While MoI instructions state that a detained migrant can appeal the Committees’ verdict within 30 days, it is difficult to determine how one can file an appeal or how effective they are. In fact, it is unclear if detained migrants are aware of or understand their verdict. Though Saudi media has reported more than once that some migrants successfully appealed deportation verdicts, a 2014 HRW report found that many migrants could not.

The Saudi government claims that any detainee has the right to an attorney. While this might be true, many detainees either have no access to one or are unable to afford their services. In general, the legal and judicial aspects of the administrative detention are vague. Obtaining information in this area is an arduous task for migration researchers or human rights activists, and is likely as obscure for migrant workers. 

High Number of Detainees

Detained migrants sentenced to deportation are often sent to three major deportation centres that are located in the Western Province, Riyadh and Dammam, where the country’s three major airports are located. 

In November 2017, Saudi authorities cracked down on irregular migrants through raids and mass arrests, following the end of the amnesty period declared earlier that year. Based on statistics provided by the MoI, around two million people were arrested in 2018, 500,000 of whom were deported. Many others are still awaiting their deportation.  

Inhumane Detention Conditions

Despite the dearth of data on the conditions of Detention and Deportation centres in Saudi, evidence from the National Society of Human Rights (NSHR), human rights organisations and international media shed some light on the inhumane conditions of the detention conditions. The Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council has expressed concerns over the overcrowding and poor conditions of detention facilities in the Kingdom

While the Chair of the Board of the Saudi Human Rights Committee commended the sound and humane treatment of migrant workers in detention, the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) reports contradict this. The NSHR’s 2016 report stated that the Shumaisi Deportation centre in the Western Province lacks basic healthcare services and that diabetes and high blood pressure patients did receive proper treatment. It also stated that the centre lacks comfortable beds and adequate clothing. The report also added that women are often separated from their children.

The NSHR’s 2014 and 2015 reports had similar remarks. The Al-Jouf Detention centre was unsanitary and lacks basic ventilation. In addition, the centre and others did not have plans or strategies to regulate the detention and deportation procedures.

A 2015 Human Rights Watch report documented detainee accounts of widespread inhumane detention conditions; one migrant said “[in the detention centre] there was so little food, we fought over it so the strongest ate the most… Guards told us to face the wall and then beat our backs with a metal rod… Then we were transferred to a jail called Shimeisi in Riyadh, there were two toilets for 1,200 people, including dozens of children.” The report found that many detainees developed chronic health and mental problems due to overcrowded detention centres and the lack of adequate healthcare. A migrant worker stated: “There were 300 people in the same jail cell, one on top of another. There was a lot of cursing by guards, one of them was saying “dogs are better than you [Yemenis]” while he was beating detainees with a cable. I saw him beat 20 people. Some of them [guards] were also throwing cold water on us while we were sleeping.”

The Associated Press reported that detainees were beaten by Saudi security forces. Those who tried to escape their arrest were shot. Detainees also reported that security forces stole their money and savings. A migrant worker who was deported to Ethiopia told the AP: “The prison cell I was put into was so dirty that some of us were severely sick. It was like a toilet.”


Access to detention centres is restricted and data from the Ministry of Interior remain vague and insufficient, limiting our assessment of the administrative detention of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. However, migrant testimonies and the NSHR reports strongly indicate that detention practices and conditions violate basic rights.