YouTube video said to show hundreds of Yemeni migrants attempting to flee a Saudi detention centre in Altwal, Jazan province, on Tuesday
Wednesday – Day Three of Saudi Arabia's "all-out" crackdown on "illegal" migrant workers – brought news of the first death. Riyadh's police chief said an Ethiopian man had been killed in el-Manfouha, a poor district of the capital, when he and others tried to resist arrest.
Riyadh police, apparently happy to stir up prejudice against the migrants, claimed that "some" of the 818 rounded up in the capital on Tuesday "were drunk or in possession of light weapons".
According to the latest official figures, 16,487 "illegal" workers were arrested across seven provinces in the first two days of what some of the Saudi newspapers are euphemistically calling a "correction" process. Arab News says a further 11,756 "violators of residency and labour laws" were arrested yesterday. If the official figures are accurate, this brings the total number of arrests over a three-day period to 28,243.
Even by the standards of Middle Eastern dictators this is an extraordinary number – and yet the story is getting only minimal coverage in international media and has so far aroused little interest on Twitter.
The crackdown is intended to put an end to years of mismanagement and corruption in the kingdom's sponsorship system for migrant workers. Previously many of these workers signed contracts with sponsors, often for very low salaries and supplemented their incomes by working for other employers. Many also became "illegal" after falling out with their original sponsor-employers. Others, having arrived in the kingdom for pilgrimages, overstayed and took up work without permits.
A change in the labour law now requires them to have a single employer, with their profession recorded on the visa. Anyone found working for another employer is liable to be deported. Saudis who employ migrants illegally can be fined up to SR100,000 ($26,600) and jailed for up to two years.
Today's Saudi Gazette puts a positive spin on this, quoting an economist who says the changes will benefit the economy – reducing inflation, easing unemployment, creating investment opportunities, etc, etc.
The economist, Fadl al-Buainain, claims there were 10 million expatriates in the labour market "who prevented Saudis from getting jobs", though he also says "illegal expatriates were only marginal manpower that had no effect whatsoever on the market".
Buainain goes on to say that migrants were "a burden on the economy" because they took advantage of subsidised services and goods, adding: "Riyadh was suffering from a scarcity of water and energy because of the steady demand for these resources by the large number of foreigners."
Similar arguments have been heard many times before, from racist and anti-immigrant movements all over the world. The reality, though, is that most of the migrants have not been depriving Saudis of jobs, nor has their role been marginal. They may exist on the margins but they provide services that are often essential.
Numerous sectors of the economy have been hit in the crackdown as migrant workers leave or go into hiding. Shops, restaurants and even schools have had to close and construction sites have been abandoned (see Tuesday's blog post). Yesterday it was reported that there is now a shortage of people in Jeddah to wash the bodies of the dead before burial.
Arab News also describes a raid on Jeddah's central vegetable market (Halaga) yesterday by two busloads of inspectors who detained "dozens" of Yemenis and Pakistanis.
"The raids have had a direct impact on area markets, which have raised produce prices by as much as 100 percent," the paper says. "Farmers in Jazan, Baha, Taif and Asir also reported raids, which in turn have affected the flow of supplies to markets."
The idea that thousands of young Saudis supposedly deprived of jobs by undocumented migrant workers will now be rushing to fill the vacancies for washing the dead, shifting vegetables, labouring on building sites and other tasks that they regard as menial or degrading is, at best, fanciful.
An article in Al-Madinah (translated into English by the Saudi Gazette) highlights the shattered expectations of those who study abroad under King Abdullah's scholarship scheme – only to find there is no suitable work for them when they return.
Robert Lacey, author of Inside the Kingdom, a modern history of Saudi Arabia, argued recently that the scheme has a positive effect, helping to bring about social change. The article in Al-Madinah tells a different story:
"There are many Saudi men and women who studied at the best universities in the world and graduated with honours. These outstanding students were honored by their universities but when they came back to their country they were shocked to find out that there were no jobs awaiting them.
"If at all there were job opportunities for them, they would not be in their fields of specialisation. This has pained and disappointed the graduates who were honoured and accredited abroad but not in their own home.
"Even the employees who were sent for higher education abroad by their government departments were not given the opportunity to improve the performance of these departments. They were ultimately made part of the routine and bureaucracy existing in these departments."
What happens to the detainees?
Until now, very little information has emerged about what happens to migrants once they have been detained, or how they are being treated.
An article in today's Arab News sheds some light on the process, if not the conditions in which detainees are held.
It quotes Badar bin Saud Al Saud of the Makkah police directorate as saying the first step is to check whether the migrants have any criminal cases pending.
"If they are cleared, their personal belongings are deposited in a special box at the Passport Department's reception centre. Their biometrics are recorded in the same building and all details recorded before they are sent to the detention center at the general service centre with the knowledge of the Prisons Administration.
"He said the next step involves getting travel documents for the detainees from their consulates and placing them on flights to their home countries. The entire process takes about 48 hours depending on the consulates and flight availability. The Saudi government pays for their flights home, he said."
The paper also quotes a Jeddah police spokesman as saying the city's detention centre has been refurbished and has "unlimited capacity" for detainees of both sexes. "The detention facility has an unlimited capacity and is guarded by security on all sides. Medical, civil defence, first aid, utilities and humanitarian services are available around the clock."
Yemenis face deportation
About 150,000 Yemenis are facing deportation because they have been unable to regularise their status in Saudi Arabia, the Yemen Times reports. This will also have a knock-on effect for many families living in the kingdom's southern neighbour:
Rafeeq Qasim, 28, is from Mahwit [in Yemen] and has been working in Saudi Arabia since 2006 ... Qasim's work in Saudi Arabia is the only source of income for his 13-member family.
"I know hundreds of Yemenis who have sold everything they have, even their cell phones, as they prepare for their return to Yemen. The situation is very bad here," Qasim told the Yemen Times.
The paper adds that Saudi authorities are confiscating workers' remittances to their families if they exceed the monthly salary as stated in the workers' contracts:
"Saudi authorities have arrested about 500 Yemenis in the past two months for sending home remittances that exceed the monthly salaries stipulated by their employers.
"Yemenis have resorted to sending money back physically with those traveling to Yemen."
Abuse investigation in Philippines
The Philippine Daily Inquirer reports that parliament is to
investigate alleged abuses committed against Filipinos during Saudi Arabia's crackdown on undocumented workers.
Thirty expelled Filipinos arrived in Manila on Monday complaining of ill-treatment by Saudi officials, including "being treated like animals" and having their feet chained.
"Nothing short of a diplomatic action from our government must be taken to seek an apology from the Saudi government for such barbaric and dehumanising actions and prevent its recurrence," Walden Bello, head of parliament's committee on overseas workers' affairs, said.
He also also accused to Philippines government of failing to prepare "the necessary resources" to help its citizens in Saudi Arabia even though it knew the crackdown was coming.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 7 November 2013