Saudi Arabia: A Crackdown on Undocumented Foreign Workers
Posted on November 25, 2013 by Madeleine Bair
By Sidahmed Tfeil and Madeleine Bair
The night of November 9, clashes broke out between Saudi authorities, civilians, and immigrants—predominantly Ethiopian—in Riyadh’s Manfuhah district. This raw video, lit only by street lights is one of several taken by bystanders depicting the chaos and violence that ensued in the night. At one point during a scene of mob violence, a discernible voice shouts in Arabic, “hand them over, guys.” Over several days, riots persisted in Riyadh and the coastal city of Jeddah, resulting in hundreds of arrests and dozens of injuries, and reported deaths of one Saudi citizen and three Ethiopians.
The clashes took place amidst a government crackdown on undocumented foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, after an amnesty expired in early November. Police rounded up thousands of Ethiopians in the first few days of the crackdown, but Ethiopians allege brutality during the raids, including rape, sexual harassment, and murder at the hands of Saudi police and civilians, which prompted many Ethiopian youth to protest and riot. In two weeks, Saudi Arabia deported 60,000 illegal foreign workers. Nearly a million reportedly left the country voluntarily.
Human rights violations
Allegations of brutality during the crackdown prompted Ethiopian authorities to demand an explanation from their Saudi counterparts. Online videos appear to show mob violence against foreigners as well as looting and rioting in immigrant neighborhoods. This press release by the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia references other YouTube videos it says corroborates claims of abuse—including sexual violence—but the Human Rights Channel has been unable to independently verify those videos.
Abuse of authority is only one of many human rights issues brought to light by this crackdown. The legal quandary of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is another long-held concern of advocacy groups. As Human Rights Watch pointed out earlier this year, many of country’s estimated nine million foreign workers—more than half of the country’s workforce—rely on their employees for legal protection, facilitating abusive workplace relationships. Furthermore, foreign workers have become scapegoats for the high unemployment of Saudi citizens.
Finally, the mass deportation of foreign workers has highlighted the working conditions of foreigners in Saudi Arabia. Brutality many migrants face was already in the spotlight in early November after a YouTube video circulated appearing to show a Saudi man whipping and beating a foreign employee. Since the mass deportations of immigrants, several foreign governments and advocacy groups have called for an investigation into the stories they are hearing of abuse their nationals experienced while working in Saudi Arabia.