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VI.   Deportation of Migrant Workers

“There was no way to complain.  They took us from the deportation center directly to the airport.” 

--Filipino restaurant worker, deported from Saudi Arabia in May 2003.

Migrant workers are among the hundreds of thousands of foreigners officially deported from Saudi Arabia each year. An interior ministry official reported in 2002 that over 700,000 illegal residents were deported annually, most of them Muslim pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina who overstayed their visas.238  The government’s recent tightening of regulations for haj and umrah pilgrims from abroad appears to have shifted the statistics. “There are more workers without sponsors than overstaying pilgrims,” Major General Abdul Aziz Sajeeni, director general of the interior ministry’s passports department, said at a press conference in February 2004. Most of the illegal workers were those who had not renewed their residency permits, he added.  He also indicated that authorities would continue to crack down on unlicensed businesses in the kingdom, stating that “most of these businesses are run by expatriates.”239

In addition to migrant workers in violation of immigration laws, the kingdom is deporting growing numbers of foreigners who are living with HIV/AIDS.240  The Saudi ministry of health requires mandatory testing of all migrant workers for HIV.241 Saudi embassies in the migrants’ countries of origin do not issue employment visas without proof of a complete medical examination that includes an HIV test. When migrants arrive in Saudi Arabia, they are required to have another medical examination and an HIV test in order to receive a two-year residency permit (iqama).  According to a health ministry report released in 2004, “There are clear guidelines about the treatment of foreigners.  First they will be treated in the kingdom until they are in stable condition and then they will be deported to their home countries.”242  Toward the end of 2003, the director of the kingdom’s HIV/AIDS prevention program, Nasser al-Hazeem, reported 6,787 cases (1,509 of them Saudi citizens), and noted that the foreigners were deported.243  Human Rights Watch is not aware of additional public information about the nationalities, gender, place of residence in the kingdom, and medical status of the 5,278 foreigners whose cases were reported.244

Deportees with Outstanding Labor Grievances

The official deportation process has failed to safeguard the rights of migrant workers who have labor-related grievances against their employers, most notably unpaid wages. Migrants who fled abusive employers and thus lost their legal status have been arrested and summarily deported without the opportunity to press claims through the government’s labor grievance process.245 

Another problem is that “runaways” sometimes have been arrested on fabricated charges that employers lodge with the police. “Employers take preventive action to protect themselves against runaways,” said a Filipino administrator who worked in the kingdom for twenty years and was well informed about the plight of runaway workers. He explained that after a worker has fled, the employer may turn in the worker’s passport to the police and file a signed complaint accusing the worker of theft, or possession of alcohol or pornographic materials. “Employers with runaways are eager to report them to the police so they can get another visa processed,” he told us.246 

In other cases, employers have initiated allegedly false complaints whileworkers were still under their legal sponsorship, leading to their arrest, trial, and deportation after serving prison sentences.

Murali, a forty-two-year-old mosaic and marble craftsman from India, described to us how he was arrested, unfairly tried, and sentenced to a prison term because his sponsor sought to avoid paying a significant amount of wages that were due to him. Murali  returned from Saudi Arabia in 2003, after spending thirteen months in prison. He told us that he worked for individual clients in the city of Qassim, but that the contracts for each job were written in his sponsor’s name and the clients paid the sponsor directly. According to Murali, he worked as a skilled craftsman on various projects for two years and three months, but was not paid his wages for one year and four months. He calculated that his sponsor owed him about 240,000 rupees, or $5,300.  After repeatedly pressing the sponsor to pay his earned wages, Murali was arrested. His sponsor reported to the police that he found Murali’s telephone number in the possession of the sponsor’s Indonesian maid. (See Chapter VII for information about Murali’s arrest, detention, and trial.) 

Murali told us that during his imprisonment he wrote repeatedly to prison authorities – “every other week” – in an attempt to pursue his claim against the sponsor. Toward the end of his prison term, the sponsor, a retired policeman, was summoned to the jail. He denied owing any money to Murali and, according to Murali, told him: “Go back to India.” Murali then asked the sponsor to provide him with a return ticket but he refused.  Murali was not informed at the prison of any legal options, so he contacted his brother-in-law who worked in Dammam, who purchased the return ticket for him. Four days after the ticket arrived at the prison, “I was brought to the airport in chains by the police,” Murali said.247  The arbitrary and unfair “hearing” of Murali’s complaint in the prison was no substitute for bringing his case before a labor office for adjudication. But his lack of knowledge about the official grievance process, and the circumstances of his departure from Saudi Arabia, left Murali with no opportunity to seek recourse.

Two restaurant workers from the Philippines who fled an abusive employment situation were unable to recoup earned wages because they were summarily deported.  Raymond,  twenty-two years old, told us the story. When he arrived in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia on a legal employment visa in September 2002, he was forced to sign an Arabic-language contract that he could not read.  Raymond said that this new contract did not reflect the monthly salary of $300 that he was promised in the Philippines. Instead, it specified a monthly wage of $267, or 1,000 riyals. Additional illegal deductions of the employer lowered the salary even more. 

The restaurant, located in Hofuf, was not open when Raymond arrived, and he told us that he helped the owner equip it. When the business was launched, the staff included Raymond, another Filipino, two Bangladeshis, and two Syrians.  Raymond said that the four Asian employees were forced to work extraordinarily long days of sixteen to eighteen hours.Hetold us that he was so exhausted from lack of sleep that he “felt mentally retarded.”  According to Raymond, his employer also illegally deducted 100 riyals per month from the workers’ salaries to cover the cost of their residency and work permits, and in some months did not pay wages in full or skipped the payments completely.248 

After six months, Raymond and his Filipino coworker decided to leave the job. They traveled to Riyadh and visited the Philippines embassy for advice. Raymond said that an official was not helpful: “He told us to go back to the employer.”  The two young men slept on the streets until another Filipino took them in. According to Raymond, the embassy finally arranged a meeting with the employer to negotiate a settlement. Raymond and his colleague were not present at the meeting, but two diplomats told them that the employer agreed to return their passports with an exit visa and provide a return ticket to the Philippines. “They left, and after five minutes the police came,” Raymond said. “They handcuffed our hands and feet and pointed rifles at our backs. The sponsor was smiling like a devil,” he added.  The two Filipinos were held for one week in the jail in Hofuf and then were moved to Dammam. They were deported on May 12, 2003, escorted to the airport by police. Raymond and his coworker left the kingdom with three months of salary unpaid. “There was no way to complain – they took us from the deportation center directly to the airport,” he told us.249

Migrant workers who find themselves in such situations must be provided with an opportunity to bring formal complaints against their employers and demand the wages and other benefits that are their due.  As long as migrants out of legal status continue to be detained in the kingdom pending deportation, the ministry of labor should have offices in deportation jails to take complaints from aggrieved workers, according to a fair and transparent process that is described fully to workers, both orally and in written material in their native languages.  Legal aid lawyers should be provided to such workers free of charge, so that they can bring their cases to labor grievance bodies. 

Migrants imprisoned in the criminal justice system -- based on complaints of abusive employers that may be false -- also should have the opportunity to press claims of unpaid wages and other abuses through a transparent and fair grievance process.  Allegations against employers of fraud, and possibly criminal fraud, should be immediately processed and thoroughly investigated if there is prima facie evidence of the merit of such claims.

Current Conditions in Deportation Jails

For exploited migrant workers who pay or borrow significant sums of money to enter Saudi Arabia on valid employment visas and wish only to earn money to send to their families back home, confinement in deportation jails and other lock-ups represents a final insult and injustice.  Migrants recently imprisoned in deportation jails described severe overcrowding, inadequate sanitary facilities, other poor conditions, and corporal punishment.   


In May and June 2003, a deportation facility in Riyadh was packed with men, according to an Indian worker who was held there for forty-five days.  He told us that his cell had a maximum capacity of about forty to sixty people, “but on any day there were ninety to one hundred – sometimes as many as 150, but never less than ninety.”  He said that the prisoners had blankets but no mattresses. They shared five toilets, and there was a row of pipes for drinking water outside the toilets. The cell did not have windows but the air-conditioning functioned properly. A small opening with wire mesh covered the door to the cell. During the six weeks that this Indian deportee was held there, he said inmates were never allowed outside to enjoy natural light, fresh air, or exercise.

The prisoners were fed three times a day, he said. The food was “rotten…we could hardly eat it,” but despite the poor quality there were “regular fights” among prisoners for the food because the quantity was insufficient.  Uniforms or other clean clothes were not provided; the men were dressed in the clothing they wore at the time of arrest, unless visiting friends supplied clean items. Visiting hours were from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, “but sometimes the visits were cancelled with no reasons given,” he added.

He told us that inmates were subjected to gratuitous violence, particularly during the counts that took place three times a day.  When the prisoners were removed from their cells for the counts, prison personnel in khaki uniforms randomly “beat up and kicked them.” The times of the counts varied, and sometimes the first count was at three in the morning. “If someone was slow to arrive, he was kicked or beaten with fists. One morning I did not get to the queue fast enough and I was kicked in the chest,” adding that this was the only time he was physically assaulted.  After a fight erupted between four Bangladeshi and three Lebanese prisoners, “they were all beaten,” and then the guards subjected them to additional physical abuse. “They tied their hands behind their backs, told them to bend down, and beat them on their backs.  They cuffed their ankles and made them stay for one hour in this bent position.  Then they brought them to the cell and kept them shackled at the legs for one day.” Although smoking was prohibited, cigarettes were widely available. If the guards smelled cigarette smoke and investigated, Arab prisoners pointed out Indians and other foreigners and the innocent non-smokers were beaten. 

He reported that medical care was another concern: “Even if someone was crying with severe pain, medical aid never came immediately.  This really bothered me.  You needed to shout a lot.  Sometimes it took one or two hours for someone to come, and then it was not doctors but police who handcuffed the person’s hands and feet.”  He remembered that one time the  prisoners banged on their cell doors for two hours to obtain medical assistance for a Bangladeshi and an Egyptian who had collapsed, almost unconscious.250   


Conditions in the Buraiman deportation jail in Jeddah were “very bad, like a dirty marketplace,” said an Indian worker who was an inmate there for eight days in May 2003. He told Human Rights Watch that he was held in a large cell with about 400 other men.  Of eight toilets, only one was operable.  The room was air conditioned but there were no beds or blankets and everyone slept on the floor.  The interior skylight, covered with wire mesh, provided no natural light. The prisoners were fed three times a day, “but only the strongest ones got breakfast” because food for this meal was undersupplied. He added that the cell had no drinking water, which was purchased from the Indian and Bangladeshi maintenance staff.251  Another Indian, who spent one week in the same facility in late 2002, had similar complaints about the facility. He said he was held in a large hall with hundreds of other men.  There were no beds and no air conditioning, only fans, he recalled.  The food was “okay,” but he described sanitary conditions as “horrible,” with only six toilets for the inmates to share. There were three faucets with running water but they operated only during prayer times.252

A Bangladeshi worker, imprisoned in Buraiman for one week in January 2003, said he was held in a cell with about 400 other men, at least 100 of them from Bangladesh. “We slept in a big room without pillows or blankets.  There was a bad smell in the room and I vomited several times. There was no water to take a bath so I did not have a shower for seven days,” he added.  He described the food as “not bad,” and pointed out that three daily meals in the jail was an improvement over the one meal he had been accustomed to eating.253


A Filipino worker who was imprisoned in Dammam for one week in May 2003 before his deportation said he was “locked in one big room with about 1,500 other prisoners” of Saudi and other nationalities.  There were no windows – “it was like a concrete box.”  The room was tremendously overcrowded, without beds or blankets, and the inmates were forced to sleep either standing or sitting.  “We had no changes of clothes, and some poor Egyptians had been there for six months” he commented.  There were only two functioning toilets and the men waited three hours or more to use them.  He said he understood that the prisoners were either awaiting deportation or sentences from the courts. “Sometimes the guards came in and slapped, punched and sometimes kicked prisoners” at random because they were shouting for food and water, he said.254

Legal Responsibility for Conditions in Deportation Jails

Under international law, the treatment of migrant workers detained in Saudi Arabia pending deportation should be guided by the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.255  These rules outline basic standards of treatment – with respect to accommodations, personal hygiene, clothing and bedding, food, exercise and sport, and medical services – that Saudi government authorities have violated with impunity, according to testimony that Human Rights Watch obtained from migrants recently imprisoned in major cities across the kingdom. The testimony suggests that authorities responsible for poor conditions in deportation facilities – and the physical abuse of detainees – should take immediate action to bring these facilities into compliance with minimal international standards.

[238] “Kingdom deports 700,000 illegals annually: Official,” Arab News, May 21, 2002.

[239] P.K. Abdul Ghafour, “Campaign Against Overstayers to Be Stepped Up,” Arab News, February 25, 2004.

[240]  Prospective migrant workers who are HIV positive are not permitted to enter Saudi Arabia, and if they test positive while in the kingdom they are deported, apparently irrespective of whether they are able to work or not.

[241] Sami A. Hamdi, M.D., and M. Abdulbari Ibrahim, M.D., “Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Domestic Expatriate Workers in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,” Annals of Saudi Medicine, vol. 17, no. 1, 1997, 29-31.

[242] M. Ghazanfar Ali Khan, “3 Specialized Units to Be Set Up to Combat AIDS,” Arab News, January 26, 2004, citing health ministry adviser Dr. Tarek Medani.

[243] Agence France-Presse, “Saudi Arabia has 6,787 HIV/AIDS cases, up five-times from 16 months ago,” December 1, 2003, citing al-Riyadh newspaper.

[244] Gender information is particularly important, given reported statistics about the incidence of HIV in returned women migrants.  The United Nations Development Program has reported, for example, that fifty percent of reported HIV cases in Sri Lanka were women domestic workers returned from the Middle East.

[245] See Chapter V for additional information.

[246] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 18, 2003.

[247] Human Rights Watch interview, Nagarikunnu, Kerala, India, November 28, 2003.

[248] According to Raymond, the Bangladeshis were paid 600 riyals a month and the Filipinos 800 riyals. 

[249] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 8, 2003.

[250] Human Rights Watch interview, Calicut, Kerala, India, December 4, 2003.

[251] Human Rights Watch interview, Calicut, Kerala, India, December 5, 2003.

[252] Human Rights Watch interview, Monjeri, Kerala, India, December 1, 2003.

[253] Human Rights Watch interview, Bancharampur, Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh, May 9, 2003.

[254] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 8, 2003.

[255] These guidelines were adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955, and approved by the [U.N.] Economic and Social Council by its resolutions 663C (XXIV) of 31 July 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of 13 May 1977.

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