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Gulf states ramp up arrest and deportation campaigns

On January 5, 2023

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait have intensified efforts to identify and deport migrants with irregular status in recent months. Many migrants enter into an irregular status due to the Kafala system, under which employers possess near total control over migrant workers’ legal status. Workers can be pushed into an irregular status if employers fail to obtain or extend their residency. Constraints on changing employers mean that workers who need to leave an exploitative workplace are also often forced into irregularity. Rather than reforming the labour-migration system meaningfully, the Gulf states periodically launch deportation campaigns, occasionally preceded by amnesty campaigns, to reduce the population of undocumented workers.

Under the banner of “[getting] rid of marginal manpower...and deal[ing] with the visa traders,”  Kuwaiti authorities arrested and deported 9,500 irregular migrants between August and November 2022, with 1,000 migrants arrested in November alone. Its campaigns targeted a number of sectors, but particularly the farming, fishing, and service industries. According to local media, Kuwait deported around 30,000 migrants in 2022. Only 660 of these deportations were judicial, meaning they were carried out as a penalty issued by a court. The remaining were administrative, meaning the deportations were carried out by an administrative order, without needing legal grounds or an investigation. Across the region, the majority of migrant workers with irregular status are deported administratively.

In Bahrain, the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) has “address[ed] illegal labour practices,” by referring 977 irregular workers to public prosecution and issued 916 deportation orders between January and September. 505 migrants with irregular status were sentenced to deportation between 7 October to 30 November 2022 alone. The deportations were carried out as part of the authority’s intensified inspection campaigns.

Saudi Arabia’s crackdown has been the most intense. The country has a much larger migrant population compared to Bahrain and Kuwait, and regularly detains African and Yemeni migrants who cross the Yemen-Saudi border. From 24 November to 28 December 2022 over 73,800 migrants were arrested. According to authorities, 43,200 migrants were arrested for violating residency laws, 11,500 arrested for violating labour regulations and 19,200 arrested for violating border regulations. During the same period, the Saudi government deported 46,000 migrants with irregular status. Saudi’s Ministry of Interior stated that of 28 December 2022, 36,800 migrants are “currently undergoing procedures for violating [residency] regulations.”

Amnesty International recently reported that Saudi Arabia would repatriate over 100,000 Ethiopian nationals detained in the Kingdom by the end of 2022. Amnesty has documented several cases of torture, overcrowding, and lack of access to healthcare in Saudi Arabia’s detention centres.

Migrants rarely have any recourse to challenge their detention or deportation sentences, and this is especially the case in mass deportation campaigns where there are no individualised reviews. Migrants caught up in these campaigns are not screened as potential victims of trafficking, nor assessed for risk of abuse upon return to their origin country. MR has previously reported on likely cases of refoulement involving Cameroonian workers in the UAE and Ethiopian workers in Saudi Arabia.