Mohamed, a 22-year old Somali, was in Saudi Arabia and made a living washing cars. In late 2013, due to increasing government pressure on employers of undocumented workers, Mohammed was fired. In December, after several weeks without a job, he handed himself over to the police. He spent the next 57 days detained in appalling conditions. “In the first detention center in Riyadh, there was so little food, we fought over it,” he said. “So the strongest ate the most. 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.” Mohamed is now in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. He is one of more than 25,000 Somalis, including hundreds of women and children, rounded up by the Saudi authorities and expelled back to their war-torn home country since the last month of 2013.
The rash of deportations has continued in early 2014, with hundreds forced to leave each week in February and March to date. And the Saudis are expected to expel thousands more. These moves are part of a campaign by Saudi labor authorities and security services to arrest and deport undocumented migrants from several countries, a process that the government contends will open private-sector employment opportunities to Saudi Arabian citizens.
Nine recent deportees who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch researchers in Mogadishu in early February described conditions in Saudi detention similar to those experienced by Mohamed. They spoke of severe overcrowding, little air or daylight, poor sanitary facilities, sweltering heat in some cases and cold in others, and limited access to medical assistance. Some said they had developed chronic health problems, including persistent coughing, as a result of their time in custody. Children are sometimes detained with their relatives but some have also been separated from their parents or caregivers.
Saladu, a 35-year old mother of two, was detained for nine days with her two children, ages 7 and 9, and her sister’s three children in Jidda before deportation. “The room we stayed in with 150 other women and children was extremely hot and there was no air conditioning,” she said. “The children were sick. My son was vomiting and his stomach was very bloated. There were no mattresses. People just slept on the floor.”
Most of the recent deportees described inadequate food of poor quality in detention. Several said people in the cells fought over space as well as food. “There were a lot of people in the room, some little children,” said Raiza, 45, detained for three months with her daughter, who suffers from mental health problems. “You would have to fight to get your space.”
Others said they were subjected to beatings and other abusive treatment during the deportation procedures. Sadiyo said she was in the ninth month of her pregnancy and was standing in line at the Jidda airport when a Saudi policewoman beat her with a baton on her back. She went into labor and gave birth on the cabin floor of the plane as it flew to Mogadishu.
Given the number of people being deported and the gravity of the situation in Somalia, Saudi Arabia may be violating its obligation under international law not to send anyone back to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened or where they would face persecution, torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment. Mohamed, for example, left Baidoa in south-central Somalia in 2008, fleeing conflict and economic stagnation. The reasons for his flight remain unchanged: fighting persists in many parts of south-central Somalia, government control is severely limited, and the armed Islamist group, al-Shabaab, controls large sections of the territory.
Somalis in Saudi Arabia are part of one of the largest migrant labor populations in the world. At least 7.5 million migrant foreign workers—more than half the work force—fill the country’s manual, clerical and service jobs.
Since 2011, increasingly conscious of unemployment among the native-born population, Saudi officials have had a quota system for foreigners in the private sector. In April 2013, Saudi police and labor officials opened the nationwide campaign to arrest and expel undocumented workers, including workers without valid residency or work permits, or workers caught working for an employer other than their legal sponsor. As part of the campaign, police raided office buildings and set up checkpoints on main roads. Following an outcry from businessmen and foreign missions, King ‘Abdallah suspended the expulsion campaign. He announced a “grace period” for workers to correct their status or leave the country, which he extended on July 2 for another three months.
On November 4, Saudi authorities resumed raids and mass arrests, detaining at least 20,000 workers in the first two days alone, according to the Jidda-based Saudi Gazette. Several Somali deportees said they had handed themselves over to the police, fearing that they would be beaten up if they did not.
The government effort also precipitated several attacks on undocumented workers. The most violent assaults occurred on the evening of November 9 in areas around the Manfouha neighborhood of southern Riyadh, which hosts a large Ethiopian population.
Two Ethiopian migrant workers told Human Rights Watch they saw a group of people armed with sticks, swords, machetes and firearms, apparently Saudi Arabian citizens, set upon foreign workers that night. “On the first night it was both the police and shabab [“young men” in Arabic] who were attacking and beating Ethiopians. When we went out of our homes to protect them, the police were there, but they didn’t let us to do anything,” one worker said. He also said he saw a large circle of Ethiopians crying around several dead and wounded migrants. Another migrant from Manfouha said that a group of 20 men with machetes and pistols broke down the door of a house in which he had taken refuge and attacked the people inside.
The Saudi Interior Ministry announced on January 21 that it had deported more than 250,000 people since November, including workers from Somalia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, the Philippines, Nepal, Pakistan and Yemen.
It is easy for foreigners to end up undocumented in Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch research indicates that Saudi Arabia’s labor system fuels exploitation and abuse and ultimately drives many foreign workers to seek under-the-table work in violation of labor laws.
“Ra’id,” a 24-year old Yemeni worker, told Human Rights Watch that he entered Saudi Arabia legally after receiving a visa to work for a cargo company. After he arrived, he said, he could not find his sponsor and had to take up off-the-books work at a gas station. He finally located his sponsor, who demanded 4,000 Saudi riyals ($1,066) for a residency and work permit, telling “Ra’id” that the cargo company was a legal fiction. After “Ra’id” paid the money, he said, the Saudi Arabian sponsor failed to provide him with a residency card, and threatened to report him to authorities if he called back. “Ra‘id” eventually decided to leave, paying another 4,000 riyals for an exit visa. “I waited ten months with no residency,” he said. “I feel so depressed. This is no life.”
Under the kafala (sponsorship) system, an employer assumes responsibility for a hired migrant worker and must grant him or her explicit permission before the worker can enter Saudi Arabia, transfer employment or leave the country. An employer is also responsible for keeping workers’ work and residency permits up to date. If the employer fails to take these measures, the worker pays the price.
Employers often abuse this power over workers, in violation of Saudi law. Employers confiscate passports, withhold wages and force migrants to work against their will or on exploitative terms. Over the past ten years, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which workers were unable to escape from abusive conditions or even to return home after their contracts ended because their employer denied them permission to leave the country.
It appears that many workers, unwilling to remain in an abusive situation, choose to violate labor laws by seeking work under better terms with another employer. Others are simply stuck in Saudi Arabia, unable to leave due to exit visa requirements, as they work to sustain themselves and their families back home.
Rampant corruption within the kafala system makes the situation worse. Thousands of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia work illegally under the “free visa” arrangement, in which Saudi Arabians posing as sponsoring employers import workers to staff businesses that do not exist, as in the case of “Ra’id.” Workers who enter Saudi Arabia under this scheme work from the beginning outside the regulatory system for companies that are happy to avoid official scrutiny while the worker pays regular “fees” to the free-visa “sponsor” to renew residency and work permits.Authorities consider these workers as undocumented, and they therefore have no ability to seek redress for abuses they suffer.Migrants caught working under this scheme are subject to arrest and deportation. It is unknown whether authorities have prosecuted any Saudi Arabians posing as employers for visa corruption, but in December Labor Minister ‘Adil Faqih announced that those who hire foreign workers but do not provide a job will face prosecution and be classified as “human traffickers.”
Ongoing Violence in Somalia
The plight of Somalis being deported from Saudi Arabia is particularly alarming given the situation on the ground in Somalia, especially the fighting in many south-central parts of the country, where al-Shabaab continues to control much of the territory. A new offensive by African Union forces against al-Shabaab is underway. Many civilians in those areas remain in dire need and the UN has raised concerns that renewed fighting could hamper access of humanitarian relief workers to combat zones.
In Mogadishu, hundreds of thousands of people live in grim conditions in camps for internally displaced people. Abuses in these camps are rampant. Members of state security forces and armed groups have raped, beaten and otherwise maltreated displaced Somalis, particularly since an influx of people into the capital during the 2011 famine.
In January 2013 the Somali government announced plans to relocate tens of thousands of displaced people in Mogadishu to better accommodations. These plans stalled primarily due to the government’s inability to provide basic protection in the planned relocation sites. The abuses persist. A February Human Rights Watch report documents high levels of rape and sexual abuse against women and girls in Mogadishu in 2013, particularly among displaced women who are attacked inside and near camps for displaced people.
Al-Shabaab carries out bombings and other attacks in Mogadishu. On February 13, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the car bombing that day outside Mogadishu’s airport, apparently targeting a UN convoy, that killed at least six people, including two civilians recently deported from Saudi Arabia. Such attacks either directly targeting civilians or killing civilians are not unusual, but are often overlooked by the international media unless the casualty figures are particularly large, like an April 2013 bombing of a Mogadishu courthouse that killed more than 30 people, or aimed at foreign targets, like the June 2013 attack that devastated the UN compound.
In areas under its control, al-Shabaab commits serious abuses against civilians, including forced recruitment of children and attacks on people perceived to support the Somali government. On March 5, al-Shabaab publicly executed three alleged spies in Barawe, one of the group’s strongholds.
Many of those being deported from Jidda are not from Mogadishu but from other parts of south-central Somalia.Twenty-six-year-old Salad, for example, was deported from Jidda to Mogadishu in mid-January. Originally from Bakool, a region that is still largely under al-Shabaab control, he spent his first night sleeping on the streets in the capital.
The risks to people sent to Mogadishu without a local support network and lacking the survival skills needed in today’s Somalia are very real.In November, Said, a 26-year old who was sent back by the Netherlands, was injured in an attack on a hotel in central Mogadishu days after his return. Said, who was born in the embattled city of Kismayo, in southern Somalia, had tried unsuccessfully to seek asylum. He had not set foot in Somalia for two decades and had never been to Mogadishu.
Saudi Arabia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have an asylum system. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has a small office in Riyadh, is not allowed by the Saudi government to receive or review refugee claims, a process known as “refugee status determination.” The Saudi authorities have no other formal procedures allowing Somalis or others who fear persecution or other harm in their home countries to seek protection in Saudi Arabia.
No country, Saudi Arabia included, is permitted to round up tens of thousands of people and expel them to a country wracked by violence without giving them the opportunity to seek protection. Customary international law prohibits refoulement, the return of anyone to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened or where they would face persecution, torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment.The protection from refoulement is not weakened in any way if persons left their home country for economic or other reasons besides war. On January 17, UNHCR issued guidelines on returns to Somalia, stating in particular that “south-central Somalia is a very dangerous place.” The international body called on countries not to return anyone to Somalia before interviewing them and ensuring that they face no threat of persecution or other serious harm if returned. Both UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration say that Saudi Arabia made no such determination before sending the Somalis back. UNHCR itself does not have access to detainees prior to deportation.
At a minimum, Saudi Arabia should immediately introduce procedures allowing refugees, including those from Somalia, to seek asylum or other forms of protection. If Saudi Arabia identifies anyone at risk of harm in Somalia, the authorities should give these Somalis secure legal status and should work closely with UNHCR, if needed. Children should not be detained because of their immigration status, and unaccompanied children—those traveling alone without caregivers—shouldnot be held with unrelated adults.
It would not take much for the Saudi authorities to ensure that people from countries in the midst of conflicts do not bear the brunt of restrictive policies toward foreigners. As Salad, the young man from Bakool, eloquently put it: “Even though we are a country still in conflict, we still deserve to be treated humanely.”
Laetitia Bader is the Somalia researcher and Adam Coogle a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Saudi Gazette, January 23, 2014.
Human Rights Watch, “As If I Am Not Human”: Abuses Against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia (New York, July 2008).
Ibid., p. 11.
Saudi Gazette, December 26, 2013.
Human Rights Watch, Hostages of the Gatekeepers: Abuses Against Internally Displaced in Mogadishu, Somalia(New York, March 2013).
Human Rights Watch, “Here, Rape Is Normal”: A Five-Point Plan to Curtail Sexual Violence in Somalia (New York, February 2014).
Human Rights Watch,No Place for Children: Child Recruitment, Forced Marriage and Attacks on Schools in Somalia (New York, February 2012).