Yemeni workers being deported through Saudi Arabia’s al-Tuwal border gate with Yemen, November 17, 2013.

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities have conducted a concerted campaign since 2013 to detain and deport hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrant workers, resulting in abuses against many of them, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 36-page report, “Detained, Beaten, Deported: Saudi Abuses against Migrants during Mass Expulsions,” draws on interviews with 60 workers deported to Yemen and Somalia who experienced serious abuses during the expulsion campaign. They described beatings and detention in poor conditions before they were deported. Many arrived back in their countries destitute, unable to buy food or pay for transportation to their home areas, in some cases because Saudi officials arbitrarily confiscated their personal property.

“Many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants Saudi Arabia has deported in the last year and a half have been sent back to places where their safety is threatened,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Saudi Arabia should treat all migrants with respect and decency, regardless of their status, and provide a fair legal process, including the right to challenge their deportation.”

What Saudi Arabia should do:

Improve conditions of detention centers for migrants
Investigate abuses during the expulsion campaign and bring those responsible to justice
Ensure access to asylum procedures consistent with international standards

Saudi Arabia stopped deporting citizens of Yemen in late March 2015, following intensification of violent conflict in Yemen, in which Saudi armed forces were involved. In April, Saudi authorities announced that all undocumented Yemenis who had been in Saudi Arabia before April 9 would be eligible for a six-month renewable visa enabling them to work and live legally in Saudi Arabia. Deportations of nationals of other countries are unaffected. Saudi Arabia should not resume deportations of Yemenis – or deport nationals of other countries– until it is able to carry out deportations in a manner that respects people’s rights, Human Rights Watch said.

None of the workers interviewed were allowed to challenge their deportations or apply for asylum. Saudi Arabia has not established an asylum system under which migrants could prevent their forced return to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

On November 4, 2013, the first day of the Islamic New Year, Saudi police and labor authorities began the nationwide campaign to locate, detain, and deport undocumented migrant workers. This followed an April 2013 amendment to the labor law that allowed police and labor authorities to enforce labor code provisions against undocumented workers, including detaining and deporting anyone not working for a designated employer.

The campaign has consisted of raids on neighborhoods and businesses and ID checks at checkpoints. It resulted in the detention of 20,000 workers in the first two days alone, and has continued in phases ever since. In April 2014, Interior Ministry officials confirmed that they had deported 427,000 undocumented foreigners over the previous six months. On December 14, 2014, the Saudi newspaper Arab News reported that Saudi Arabia had detained 108,345 migrant workers across the country and deported 90,450 of them over the previous 40 days.

Saudi authorities announced a new round of detentions and deportations of undocumented foreigners during the first quarter of 2015, and said on March 23 that Saudi Arabia had deported 300,000 people over the previous five months, an average of nearly 2,000 a day.

Most of the deported migrant workers Human Rights Watch interviewed in northern Yemen and in Mogadishu said they had entered Saudi Arabia by crossing the border from Yemen. However, some had become undocumented when they fled abusive employment situations in Saudi Arabia and sought alternative work. Under Saudi Arabia’s kafala – or sponsorship – system, most migrant workers are not allowed to change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s agreement. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

The migrant workers described serious abuses during detention in Saudi Arabia and deportation, including attacks by security forces and private citizens, inadequate detention conditions, and physical and other abuse in detention.

The campaign precipitated a wave of unrest in urban areas populated by undocumented workers, triggering violent attacks on migrants by Saudi police and private citizens, especially during November 2013. The most violent attacks occurred on the evening of November 9 in areas around the Manfouha neighborhood of southern Riyadh, where the majority of residents are Ethiopians. Manfouha residents told Human Rights Watch that at least three Ethiopian workers were killed.

Migrants said they had inadequate food and sanitation in detention and some said that guards beat them. “When they started deporting people I was working as a day laborer in Jeddah,” one deported Yemeni said. “I was afraid because of the deportation campaign and turned myself in to go back. They kept me in Buraiman Prison for 15 days. Sometimes they brought food but it was very little and people fought over it. There was no medical care. Sometimes they slapped us with belts.”

Another Yemeni deported in November 2013 after police caught him working illegally in the southern Saudi town of Jizan said he spent one night in a deportation center before Saudi officials sent him back to Yemen by bus through the al-Tuwal border crossing. “The jail conditions were bad,” he said. “There are no clean bathrooms and no separation barrier so we could see others using the toilet. They took the batteries from our phones and our SIM cards, but some people refused to give them over and the guards beat them with cables.”
 
Saudi Arabia should immediately halt mass expulsions, and ensure that any future deportations, are based on an individual assessment of the circumstances of the person being removed, including any international protection needs, Human Rights Watch said. Saudi Arabia should also change its labor rules to prevent thousands of workers from becoming undocumented and, most important, let workers change jobs if they face abuses. Saudi Arabia should also abolish the exit visa requirement to obtain permission from the employer to leave the country.

The Saudi government should sign and ratify the Refugee Convention, enact refugee law consistent with international standards, and establish fair asylum procedures for foreign nationals who may be at risk of persecution in their home countries, Human Rights Watch said. In the meantime, it should allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to exercise its mandate to determine the refugee status of asylum seekers and facilitate durable solutions for those recognized as refugees, including, where appropriate, integration in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government has legitimate authority to deport undocumented migrants. But it must comply with international law, which requires treating migrants with dignity at all times and not returning anyone who would face a real risk of serious abuse on return. Saudi Arabia should give migrants who might fear persecution upon return the opportunity to lodge asylum claims, and consider any other protection needs, Human Rights Watch said.

“In seeking to enforce its labor laws, Saudi Arabia needs to be aware that these same laws sometimes encourage abuses that lead workers to become undocumented,” Whitson said. “Saudi Arabia will never solve the problem of informal work until it fixes its labor system to root out long-term systemic abuses.”