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The testimonies in this report were obtained from interviews with migrant workers in Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines who had returned from Saudi Arabia, some of them as recently as December 2003.  Human Rights Watch was forced to research this subject from outside Saudi Arabia because, as of this writing, the kingdom remains closed to investigators from international human rights organizations.

We selected Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines for field research for several reasons. 

First, the migrant workers from these three countries are among the largest expatriate communities in Saudi Arabia.  In 2003, the Saudi government estimated that there were one million to 1.5 million Indians in the kingdom and the same number of Bangladeshis.  The Philippines government reported in the same year that over 900,000 of its citizens lived and worked in the kingdom. 

Second, these countries provided the diversity that we sought among interviewees: the workers whose accounts appear in this report include Muslims from Bangladesh, Hindus and Muslims from India, and Christians and Muslims from the Philippines.

We found migrants from Bangladesh the least educated; they typically were unskilled younger men from rural villages whose salaries in Saudi Arabia were the lowest we recorded.  We interviewed Indian migrants in cities, towns, and rural agricultural villages of Kerala, the small southwestern state of about 33 million people located on India’s Malabar coast between the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The Keralite migrants generally had more schooling than their Bangladeshi counterparts and worked in a broader range of skilled and unskilled jobs.  Migrants from the Philippines had the highest education levels, including women with some college education who earned $200 a month as domestic workers in the kingdom. Most of the Filipino male migrants whom we interviewed were skilled workers, ranging from mechanics to engineers, who commanded the highest comparative salaries.  Despite this diverse mix of migrant workers, we documented surprisingly similar problems that cut across gender, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic lines, including a pattern of human rights abuse in the kingdom’s criminal justice system.

The subjects covered in this report make clear that comprehensive documentation of the conditions facing migrant workers in Saudi Arabia would be best served by conducting the research in the kingdom. In addition to the value of being able to speak directly with officials, sponsors, and employers, such research would allow us to meet with some of the thousands of migrant men and women in the kingdom’s prisons and deportation centers whose stories need to be heard and told. 

An undetermined number of migrant workers have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution.  Independent human rights investigators should be permitted to talk to them about their interrogations and trials. There are also over thirty government labor offices throughout the kingdom where some workers file complaints against abusive employers, as well as “safe houses” where abused migrants are sheltered.

In this report, we have changed the names of the migrant workers whom we interviewed,  based on concern for their safety, should they decide to return to Saudi Arabia, and for the security of their relatives who were working in the kingdom at the time we conducted our interviews. The full names of these men and women are on file at Human Rights Watch.  The only exception to this rule is cases of migrant workers who were executed or who have been sentenced to death. In such cases, their real names are provided. 


As of this writing, discussions were ongoing between Human Rights Watch and the Saudi government about access to the kingdom for the purpose of human rights research. We had access as an organization only once, in January 2003.  During this visit, which was limited to two weeks, our representatives met in Riyadh with numerous senior government officials as well as Saudi lawyers, journalists, academics, other professionals, and members of the 120-member consultative council (majlis al-shura).  But the terms of reference for this visit did not include field research.

Without such access, Saudi Arabia remains on our list of closed countries for the purpose of human rights research. The alternative methodology used to prepare this report should indicate to the Saudi government that -- despite the additional time and expense – Human Rights Watch is prepared to document human rights abuses, even if access to the kingdom is denied. Our strong preference, however, is to work in a more open and direct manner, with the active cooperation of the government.  We hope that senior Saudi officials will see the merits of this approach and open the kingdom’s doors to researchers from Human Rights Watch and other international human rights groups.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>July 2004