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Africa/Middle East: Saudi Migrant Expulsions

AfricaFocus Bulletin
December 12, 2013 (131212)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Deadly risks to migrants and abuses of migrants' rights are found around the world. Yet while deaths of migrants on the US-Mexican border and in the Mediterranean sometimes gain news coverage and have been widely studied, those on other migration pathways are most often invisible to all but those most directly affected. This is certainly true of the journeys from the Horn of Africa to Middle Eastern countries in the arc from Egypt to the Gulf.

Over the last month, over 100,000 Ethiopian migrants have been expelled from Saudi Arabia, as part of a government crackdown on foreign workers. This AfricaFocus Bulletin, not sent out by email but available on the web at, contains several background reports on this escalation of abuses against migrants in that country, as well as on the legal situation in Gulf states preventing defense of their rights. Two are from Human Rights Watch, a third from the blog

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin, sent out by email today and available on the web at, contains excerpts from a new report on one of the most harrowing journeys, of Eritreans who are trafficked for ransom through the Sinai Desert. The full report, with devastating personal stories, is available at

Such denials of migrants' rights, it is important to note, are symptoms of a system of global apartheid in which rights and privilege are explicitly linked to country of citizenship and in which systematic abuses of vulnerable people living outside their country of citizenship are pervasive. For those calling for the world today to emulate Nelson Mandela's commitment to fight injustice, this is among the most critical challenges of our time.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration and migrants' rights, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Saudi Arabia: Labor Crackdown Violence

Ethiopian Workers Allege Attacks, Poor Detention Conditions

November 30, 2013

(Beirut) -- Ethiopian migrant workers have been the victims of physical assaults, some of them fatal, in Saudi Arabia following a government crackdown on foreign workers. Many workers seeking to return home are being held in makeshift detention centers without adequate food or shelter.

Human Rights Watch spoke to five Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. Four Ethiopians in Riyadh told Human Rights Watch that the attacks began after November 4, 2013, when authorities resumed a campaign to arrest foreign workers who they claim are violating labor laws. Security forces have arrested or deported tens of thousands of workers. Saudi officials and state-controlled media have said that migrant workers have also been responsible for violence, including attacks on Saudi citizens, in the wake of the crackdown.

"Saudi authorities have spent months branding foreign workers as criminals in the media, and stirring up anti-migrant sentiment to justify the labor crackdown," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. "Now the Saudi government needs to rein in Saudi citizens who are attacking foreign workers."

Saudi authorities should immediately investigate assaults on Ethiopian and other migrant workers by security forces and Saudi citizens, and hold those responsible for violent crimes to account, Human Rights Watch said. Saudi and Ethiopian authorities should work to speedily repatriate undocumented foreign workers waiting in makeshift holding centers, if they have no fear of returning home, and ensure that they get adequate food, shelter, and medical care.

The most violent attacks occurred on the evening of November 9 in areas around the Manfouha neighborhood of southern Riyadh, where Ethiopian residents make up a majority of residents, according to local activists. Two Ethiopian migrant workers told Human Rights Watch that they saw groups of people they assumed to be Saudi citizens armed with sticks, swords, machetes, and firearms, attack foreign workers.

One of the Ethiopians, a 30-year-old supervisor at a private company, said he heard shouts and screams from the street, and left his home near Manfouha to see what was happening. When he arrived near Bank Rajahi on the road to the Yamama neighborhood, west of Manfouha, he saw a large group of Ethiopians crying and shouting around the dead bodies of three Ethiopians, one of whom he said had been shot, and two others who had been beaten to death. He said six others appeared to be badly injured.

He said he saw Saudis whom he called shabab ("young men" in Arabic), and uniformed security forces attack the Ethiopians who had gathered. The shabab were using swords and machetes, while some of the uniformed officers were beating the migrants with metal police truncheons, and other officers were firing bullets into the air to disperse the crowd. He said that he narrowly escaped serious injury when a Saudi man swung a sword at his head. It missed, but hit his arm, requiring stitches to close the wound.

The other Ethiopian witness, a 26-year-old undocumented day laborer who lives in Manfouha, told Human Rights Watch that he was sitting among a group of 23 Ethiopians in a private home on Street 20 on the evening of November 9 when a group of 20 shabab with machetes and pistols broke down the door and attacked the people inside. He and five other Ethiopians escaped by climbing to the roof, but he does not know what happened to the other 17 men.

Another Ethiopian worker who lives nearby, but who did not witness the violence, told Human Rights Watch that on the afternoon of November 9, he was sitting inside the Ethiopian community center and school compound five kilometers from Manfouha when 35 Ethiopian men came to the center.

The Ethiopian men said that groups of armed men were forcing their way into homes in Manfouha, removing the men, and holding the women inside. The person who spoke with Human Rights Watch said that the men showed him as proof a mobile phone video they said they surreptitiously filmed from a distance that appeared to show a Saudi man raping one of the Ethiopian men's wives. He said the group told him that 10 other women were missing.

Since the evening of November 9, Ethiopian activists have circulated dozens of YouTube videos and other photos purporting to show Saudi men in civilian clothes and security forces attacking Ethiopian workers in Manfouha. Human Rights Watch cannot confirm the authenticity of these videos, though the incidents they purport to show largely match the witness accounts.

Saudi authorities should ensure that all incidents of apparent use of violence and abuse in Manfouha are swiftly and transparently investigated, and that anyone who committed a crime is brought to justice, including members of the security forces, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should both address any unnecessary and unlawful use of force by security forces and take steps to prevent ordinary citizens from harassing or molesting migrants based on suspicions that they are violating labor laws.

Some Saudi sources blame the migrants for instigating the violence. Arab News, a local English-language newspaper, said that Saudi security forces entered Manfouha on the evening of November 9 to restore the peace after a group of Ethiopian men "went on a rampage in anger at the Kingdom's ongoing campaign against illegal foreign workers." It stated that one Saudi man died after "rioters" hit him with rocks, and that the 65 injured were "mostly Saudis and legal residents." The Sabq news website reported on November 14 that Ethiopian migrants had stabbed to death a 14-year-old Saudi boy in Manfouha, reportedly asking him, "Are you Saudi?" before attacking him.

The five Ethiopian migrant workers who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that many undocumented Ethiopian workers in Manfouha have turned themselves in to the authorities since November 9, fearing violence from police and groups of Saudi citizens. One worker described the atmosphere in Manfouha as a "battleground." The Ethiopian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Muhammed Hassan Kabiera, told Arab News on November 13 that at least 23,000 Ethiopians, many from the Manfouha area, had surrendered to Saudi authorities for repatriation.

The Ethiopian workers said that authorities transported the Ethiopians to makeshift holding facilities across the area, including a large wedding hall and the campus of Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University. One man told Human Rights Watch that he visited the wedding hall and saw thousands of foreign workers detained there, men in one area, and women and children in another, both inside and outside the building.

He said that Saudi guards give the detainees only one small meal of rice per day, and provide no access to medical attention. He said that other Ethiopians in the neighborhood are trying to help the detainees by bringing food, and that many at the hall had been left without shelter during recent heavy rainfall in Riyadh. One Ethiopian in Riyadh said he escaped from the wedding hall after officials held him in an area outside the building for 10 days, failing to supply the detainees with sufficient food, which forced them to buy food from Saudi guards.

Two Ethiopians in Riyadh told Human Rights Watch that people they knew who turned themselves in had not known that authorities would hold them in makeshift detention centers. They said that Saudi officials told them they would take them directly to Ethiopia. Saudi police officials say that the kingdom is spending one million Saudi Riyals (US$267,000) per day to house and feed thousands of detained Ethiopians.

On November 19, the Ethiopian foreign minister, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, announced that the government is doing "everything possible to repatriate citizens from Saudi Arabia within 14 to 25 days."

"Saudi authorities say they are carrying out a crackdown on migrant workers humanely, but keeping thousands of people in makeshift centers without adequate food, shelter, or medical attention could lead to humanitarian disaster," Stork said. "Saudi officials should release the detainees or send them home immediately."

Migrant Worker Campaign Background

Over nine million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia--more than half the work force--ill manual, clerical, and service jobs. Many suffer multiple abuses and labor exploitation, sometimes amounting to forced labor, Human Rights Watch said.

Saudi officials say that the ongoing labor crackdown against foreign workers, which includes road checkpoints and raids on businesses, is part of Saudi Arabia's effort to combat high levels of unemployment among Saudi citizens by opening jobs previously filled by undocumented workers. Those targeted include workers who do not have the proper residency or work permits, and workers who are caught working for an employer who is not their legal sponsor. According to local media outlets, authorities have arrested and deported thousands of workers since November 4.

The violence between Saudis and Ethiopians follows months of local press reports blaming Ethiopian female domestic workers for brutal attacks against Saudi employers. In July, Saudi officials claimed that over 200 Ethiopian women had been detained in two months for "psychological problems," leading the labor ministry to temporarily ban the recruitment of Ethiopian workers to the country.

In October, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in turn, stopped processing applications for Ethiopians to travel to Saudi Arabia, citing concerns over poor labor conditions for Ethiopian migrants.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Saudi government to abolish aspects of the kafala or "sponsorship" system that create conditions for abuse, including rules requiring a worker to obtain permission from his or her employer to change jobs or leave the country. These rules leave foreign workers with little option for redress in cases of abuse or labor violations and force them into under-the-table work.

Proposed Domestic Workers Contract Falls Short; Gulf Countries Should Improve Laws, Ratify Treaty

Human Rights Watch

November 16, 2013

(Beirut) -- Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) should bring their national laws on domestic workers up to the standards set by the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention. All six countries should ratify the international treaty promptly.

The six GCC countries -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- are considering adopting a standard contract for domestic employment that would be made mandatory for all employers. It would include provisions for a weekly day of rest and paid annual and sick leave, and give workers the right to keep their own passports instead of having the employer hold it. But the contract falls short of the protections provided to other workers under the labor laws of these countries, which, for example, limit the hours of work and contain enforcement mechanisms.

"A mandatory standard contract will protect domestic workers more than the current legal void does, but falls far short of the comprehensive legal reforms needed to end abuse of domestic workers," said Tamara Alrifai, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "As long as GCC governments shortchange domestic workers compared to other workers, they are giving license to employers to treat them worse as well."

An estimated two million people are employed as domestic workers in GCC countries. Most are women from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, the Philippines, and Ethiopia. As Human Rights Watch has documented through numerous reports, many of these workers, who clean, cook, and take care of children, report a wide range of abuses.

They cite wages that go unpaid for months or years or are lower than initially promised, a lack of weekly rest days, verbal and physical abuse by employers, and restrictions on leaving the household. The kafala sponsorship system, which ties the immigration status of migrant workers in the host country to their employers, makes it difficult for workers to leave their employers, even in cases of confirmed abuse.

Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Oman exclude domestic workers from their labor laws completely. Kuwait has a mandatory standard contract for domestic workers that provides some protections, though significantly fewer and weaker ones than those in the country's labor law. However, in abusive situations -- such as nonpayment of wages, confinement in the home, or legal sanctions for quitting employment -- workers have little access to the justice system to seek enforcement of the protections the contract provides. Bahrain's 2012 overhaul of its labor law expanded some protections to domestic workers, such as providing them annual vacations, and codified others, including access to mediation in labor disputes. However, it failed to provide other basic protections, such as weekly rest days, a minimum wage, and limits to hours of work.

Saudi Arabia adopted a regulation in July 2013 that guarantees domestic workers nine hours of rest daily, one day off a week, and one month of paid vacation after two years. The nine hours of rest means domestic workers can be asked to work up to 15 hours a day, whereas the law limits other workers to eight hours of work daily.

Media sources report that Qatar's cabinet accepted a draft domestic workers law for consideration in September. The UAE's draft law [18] on domestic workers,proposed in 2012, includes some positive reforms, media reports say, such as guaranteeing a weekly day off, but also would impose harsh criminal sentences on those who "encourage" a domestic worker to quit her job or offer her shelter after she has left her employer. Neither Qatar nor the UAE have made these draft laws public.

The groundbreaking International Labour Organization's Domestic Workers Convention, adopted in 2011, establishes the first set of global labor standards for domestic workers, guaranteeing them the same basic rights as other workers. Additional protections address situations particular to domestic work, such as time they are not working but required to be available and on-call. The convention entered into force for countries that had ratified it on September 5, 2013.

Governments that ratify the treaty must put in place measures for labor inspection and enforcement and establish effective, accessible complaint mechanisms. They must also adopt all necessary and appropriate measures to protect domestic workers against abuses and fraudulent practices by private employment agencies, including by considering bilateral or multilateral agreements with countries that send the workers.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which agencies provided little or distorted information about the work domestic workers would do, and then failed to assist workers who wished to leave abusive employers. Human Rights Watch urges GCC countries to ratify ILO Convention 189 and to amend their labor laws and the proposed standard contract to conform to the treaty. This includes provisions to protect domestic workers from harassment and violence and the confiscation of their passports.

The GCC contract should meet the minimum standards set out in article 7 of the treaty: it should clearly specify the type of work to be performed, daily and weekly rest periods, the provision of food and accommodation, the terms for employers to send workers back to their home countries at the end of their contract, and the terms and conditions of termination of employment, including notice periods.

GCC countries should make the most recent version of the draft contract public to allow experts and others to comment on it before they adopt it.

A report in October by Human Rights Watch, the International Domestic Workers Federation, and the International Trade Union Confederation ( rights) showed little progress in the Middle East and North Africa in improving the conditions and protections of migrant domestic workers. No country in the Middle East and North Africa has ratified the ILO convention. Meanwhile, 25 countries have improved legal protections for domestic workers, with many of the strongest reforms in Latin America.

"Even though the majority of households in the GCC rely on domestic workers, they have trailed other regions in providing the most basic protections," Alrifai said. "There are a growing number of models around the world on how to effectively protect the rights of workers in the home."

The abuse of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia

By Graham Peebles / direct URL -

December 8, 2013

With few opportunities at home, millions of poor, desperate men and women from southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa migrate annually to Saudi Arabia, where many are enslaved and badly abused, or even killed.

Slavery is woven into the psyche of the kingdom. According to Saudi scholar Ali al-Ahmed, a "culture of slavery pervades the country", and although banned in 1964, when it is thought there were 30,000 slaves in the country, the barbaric practice of owning a fellow human being still exists in the form of the internationally condemned kafala sponsorship system. By tying the residency status of migrant workers to their employers, the system grants the latter total control, amounting to ownership.

Under the scheme employers confiscate the passports, money and mobile phones of new arrivals; workers who want to change jobs or leave the country must seek their employer's, consent who typically refuse to give it. A "sub-contracting" scheme is also in operation, with employers selling workers on. This Dickensian system, which facilitates the abuse suffered by migrant workers, particularly domestic staff, needs to be banned as a matter of urgency; labour laws protecting migrant workers must be introduced and enforced, and full access to consulate support made available.

Oil rich and abusive

Migrant workers make up a third (8 million) of the population and over half the workforce in Saudi Arabia. They are mainly unskilled labourers and domestic workers (jobs the Saudis don't want to do), are inadequately protected by labour laws and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by their employers, including excessive working hours, wages withheld for months or years on end, forced confinement, food deprivation, and severe psychological, physical and sexual abuse. Women domestic workers "are also at particular risk of sexual violence and other abuses."

A study by the Philippines-based Committee on Workers Overseas Welfare says "70 per cent of [Filipino] workers employed as caregivers or without a specific work qualification suffers continuous physical and psychological harassment" in the oil rich gulf state.

Lorraine, a 27-year-old Filipina, arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2010. "When my boss came to pick me up." she says, "he tried to touch me at once to see if I was available. In the first weeks I constantly suffered his advances, which became more insistent every time I refused." In nine months of employment Lorraine was raped five times. She was beaten and insulted by the man's wife and fed on bread and leftovers.

Large numbers of migrant workers relate similar stories, horrific experiences causing many to fall into ill health and large numbers to commit suicide. One such was an Ethiopian woman, who remains anonymous, working as a maid in the northern province of Tabarja: she hanged herself in her employer's home.

Racism is rife throughout the kingdom, from the royal top to the rural bottom; it forms part of a nefarious cocktail of rigid sectarianism, classism, clannism, and state-sponsored xenophobia that underpins extreme exploitation. All migrant workers are tarnished as "black" -- considered an insult relating to marginalized groups -- with Ethiopians sitting at the bottom of a hierarchy of prejudice that places migrants from the Philippines, Malaysia and Sri Lanka ahead of their African cousins. Ethiopians suffer the double injustice of being mistreated by their employers and agents, and neglected by their own notoriously duplicitous government -- the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) -- which offers its nationals little or no consular support.

Many African workers are Christians, but absolutely no churches are officially allowed. As recently as this April, Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, the most senior and most influential Sunni Muslim religious and legal authority in the country, declared that all churches in the Arabian Peninsula must be destroyed". In February this year the Islamic religious police, or mutaween, raided an Ethiopian Christian prayer meeting and made mass arrests. Six months earlier 35 Ethiopians were arrested and deported for engaging in Christian worship.

Judicial indifference capital punishment

In addition to suffering extreme discrimination and violent mistreatment, migrant workers who manage to escape abusive employers are often victims of spurious criminal accusations. According to Human Rights Watch, the "Saudi justice system is characterized by arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and harsh punishments… [the] criminal justice system violates the most basic international human rights standards and detainees routinely face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights".

Migrants, who often don't speak Arabic, are denied access to translators and lawyers, and frequently are not allowed to contact their embassies. In 2011 a 54-year old Indonesian worker, Ruyati Binti Satubi Saruna, was tried, sentenced and decapitated without being able to consult her government. More than 45 Indonesian foreign maids are said to be on death row. Saudi families are known to ask for up to 2 million US dollars in blood money in exchange for the release of incarcerated women awaiting execution.

In 2012, the Guardian newspaper reported, Saudi Arabia executed at least 69 people. The previous year it executed at least 79, including five women, The death toll included one woman beheaded for witchcraft and sorcery. The Saudi authorities are not forthcoming with the total numbers imprisoned and living under the shadow of the death penalty; however, Amnesty International said it knew of more than 120 people -- mostly foreign nationals -- on death row.

Violent expulsions

Over a million Bangladeshis, Indians, Filipinos, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Yemenis have been repatriated since the "correction campaign" -- arrest and expulsion -- was enforced on 4 November 2013 against migrants without the required legal documentation. The expulsions are largely supported by Saudi society; many feel the number of migrants has grown out of control since the oil boom of the late 1970s and that the huge numbers of migrants in the kingdom has impacted negatively on community life. With 12 per cent unemployment, it is hoped the process of "clearing" will allow Saud's to find more work.

During the crackdown migrants of different nationalities report being mistreated by security personnel and civilian vigilante groups; workers from the Philippines (numbering around 660,000) reported being abused and "treated like animals". Ethiopians (of whom 100,000 have been repatriated, with and without visas) have been specifically targeted; men and women have been dragged through the streets, beaten, raped and, according to Ethiopian Satellite TV Esat, dozens have been killed, including women. Witnesses report seeing two Ethiopian women killed by Saudi military vehicles, and another beaten to death with an iron by soldiers.

Confined to repatriation centres that are little more than prison camps, migrants relayed accounts of extreme mistreatment, poor sanitation, lack of food and health care. According to reports reaching Esat, thousands are hastily being taken from the camps to the Yemen border and left without any provisions. Many returnees to Ethiopia tell of violent treatment, and carry with them scars and fresh wounds from beatings by Saudi employers, police and or civilian mobs.

Fanning prejudice and hatred

Leading up to the routing of migrants, the Saudi media and authorities have spent months branding foreign workers as criminals and stirring up anti-migrant sentiment to justify the crackdown. Antagonism between Ethiopians and Saudis has been fanned by local press reports blaming Ethiopian female domestic workers for brutal attacks against Saudi employers. In July, Saudi officials claimed that over 200 Ethiopian women had been detained in two months for "psychological problems", prompting the authorities to temporarily ban the recruitment of Ethiopian workers to the country.

Over 190,000 Yemeni migrant workers have been sent home, causing severe deterioration in living conditions in Yemen. From the glass and steel mountains of Jeddah and Riyadh, they were sending up to 200 dollars a month each to their families, money desperately needed for daily living. The International Organization (IOM) for Migration says "we are looking at approximately 5 million dollars lost in remittances [to Yemen] for the months of October and November alone". Most Yemenis "are returning to areas with high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. The massive loss of income will inevitably exacerbate this situation."

In June Filipino migrants sent over 2 billion dollars home, which was "an all-time record. It was better than all foreign investments (direct and indirect) combined," Arab News reports.

In 2011 migrant workers residing in Saudi Arabia sent 35.7 billion dollars (double what it was just two decades ago) to their families. The huge amount flowing out of the country makes Saudi Arabia the second highest source of overseas payments in the world -- the first being the USA. The single biggest recipient, with 30 per cent of the total is India, followed by Egypt, Pakistan and the Philippines with almost 9 billion dollars each.

The IOM has been providing assistance to Yemeni returnees, including health care, water, food and immediate necessities such as clothing and footwear, and offers much needed support to Ethiopian returnees: overnight accommodation, food, water, shoes and money for transport to their places of origin. This is essential short-term aid which will be gratefully received; however, the immediate and ongoing hardships they and their families face, the struggle of living without work, opportunities or hope have gone nowhere. It is these underlying issues that make the disadvantaged vulnerable, and causes people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and southeast Asia to leave their homes and seek work elsewhere.

Unless the root causes -- poverty, poor education and lack of opportunities, together with extreme social and economic inequality -- are dealt with, the danger is that many of those being repatriated will endeavour to migrate elsewhere, perhaps illegally with the aid of criminal gangs, placing themselves at risk of further exploitation, abuse and even death.

The migrant crackdown in Saudi Arabia has unearthed a plethora of poisonous practises, racism, hate and abusive methods in the country. The violence meted out by security personnel and civilian gangs on the city streets has revealed publicly the level of extreme mistreatment suffered by thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of domestic workers hidden from view, trapped and enslaved.

It is a society operating in defiance of all manner of human rights that has been clearly seen and exposed.

As the thousands of Ethiopians protesting outside Saudi embassies across the world have chanted, "shame on you, shame on you, shame on you".

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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