North Africa, West Asia

Months later, Saudi still silent on stranded migrants

Until Saudi Arabia takes ownership of the crisis, it will remain responsible for the egregious human rights abuses tens of thousands of migrants are forced to endure each day.

Brittany Hamzy
4 October 2016
Seth Wenig. All rights reserved.

Mohammed Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, speaks during the Summit for Refugees and Migrants at U.N. headquarters, Sept. 19, 2016. Seth Wenig. All rights reserved.Tens of thousands of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are starving. They have limited access to clean drinking water, electricity, and medical care. Trash piles up in the dozens of labor camps they are forced to occupy, leading to squalid conditions in their cramped quarters. Everyone is out of work, and their money is running out, if it hasn’t run out already.

It is impossible for them to pay back the exorbitant debts they accumulated in order to move to Saudi Arabia. They are also now unable to send valuable remittances back to their families in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. They are not the only ones who are suffering; without money, their families are also starving, and many have been left unable to pay for their children to attend school. 

No one has been paid in months - their employers, neglected payment by the state, have left these workers with nothing.

Saudi Arabia has a large role to play in this current migrant crisis.

The Government of Saudi Arabia has a large role to play in this current migrant crisis. In 2014, the drop in oil prices forced the Saudi government to selectively implement strict cuts in state spending.

The kingdom’s subsequent mismanagement of its finances led to an economic depression, which in turn left the state unable to uphold its contractual obligations.

Saudi Arabia contracted many of the construction companies for which the stranded migrants worked. One of those companies is Saudi Oger, a Lebanese-owned construction mega-company, which relies heavily upon the Saudi government for contracted work, such as building defense installations, hospitals, and schools.

The Government of Saudi Arabia currently owes Saudi Oger over 30 billion riyals (approximately 8 billion USD) for work that has already been completed. As a result, the company is failing to meet its financial obligations, which include 15 billion riyals in loan payments, billions owed to contractors and suppliers, and over 2.5 billion to more than 30,000 workers for back and severance pay. Saudi Arabia has tabled any efforts to bail out the firm, instead blaming the firm for mismanaging its own funds. 

Saudi Oger was also directly responsible for overseeing several labor camps, most of which are now home to the thousands of stranded workers. In addition to not paying its employees, the firm’s management is responsible for cutting off electrical, medical, and food services in the camps, abandoning its former employees and leaving them to fend for themselves. Saudi Arabia’s non-payment to Saudi Oger has created a domino effect, impacting thousands of other migrant workers employed by subcontractors and supply companies.

the workers are stranded and starving

In general, many migrant workers moved to Saudi Arabia with the hope of being able to provide for their families – to ensure their children had better lives by sacrificing their own. Upon arrival, most of their employers took their passports, rendering them immobile. Many of the workers endured harsh working conditions, physically laboring in the unrelenting Saudi heat. Many of their employers were physically or mentally abusive – at least before the majority of them disappeared, taking their services and money with them. However, their presence is still felt in the labor camps where workers are stranded and starving.

The entrenchment of the kafala system, which ties a worker’s immigration and employment status to his or her employer, undermines many of the efforts to alleviate the crisis. Under kafala, a worker cannot switch jobs or leave the country without the explicit permission of his or her employer. However, in the current situation, these requirements are impossible to fulfill, as there are no employers.

The Saudi government has been notably absent in efforts to resolve the crisis.

In late July, when the news first broke of the tens of thousands of migrant workers abandoned in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi director-general of the labor ministry office in the Mecca region promised that Saudi officials would take “swift and immediate” steps to secure the workers’ back wages. Two months later, this promise has yet to be fulfilled. The Saudi government has been notably absent in efforts to resolve the crisis. Instead, the well-being of these workers has fallen exclusively into the hands of their own governments, thousands of miles away. In late July, state officials of India, Pakistan, and the Philippines immediately released statements expressing outrage at the treatment and abandonment of their citizens.

In response, India distributed 34,000 pounds of food to Saudi Arabia alongside other emergency provisions. Indian official Asim Zeeshan, a representative of the Indian Community of Jeddah, stated: “Imagine the workers’ plight — many of them were just surviving on water and salt when we reached [them] with the food packets.”

Pakistan is also trying to keep its citizens safe, while working on ways to repatriate them. The Pakistani embassy in Saudi Arabia recently opened a designated window to help the more than 8,500 of its citizens who are suffering from unemployment and nonpayment of wages, as well as installed a phone hotline for those unable to physically reach the embassy. Embassy officials have begun renewing migrant workers’ passports for free in hopes of expediting their return to Pakistan.

However, the governments of the migrants’ home countries are quite incapable of correcting Saudi Arabia’s derogation of responsibility.

The migrants’ home governments are attempting to remedy at least part of this dilemma by issuing them new passports. Yet, kafala adversely affects their efforts to repatriate their citizens. Although, some companies have issued blanket exit visas for their workers, and Saudi Arabia has offered them free flights, these arrangements do not apply to the majority of stranded workers.

Even if they are covered by the blanket visas, many stranded migrant workers are fearful that if they leave Saudi Arabia without their wages, they will never see them. This fear is not unfounded. In late August, the Philippines successfully repatriated 129 citizens, but none of them ever received their back wages. 

The Government of Saudi Arabia needs to immediately take responsibility for the lives of the tens of thousands of stranded migrant workers within its borders. The government should uphold its financial obligation to pay contracted companies for completed projects, thereby allowing these companies to fulfill their own contracts with their workers. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia must reform its kafala system and abolish its exploitive exit visa requirements, which heavily restrict the mobility of migrants.

Until Saudi Arabia takes ownership of the crisis, it will remain responsible for the egregious human rights abuses tens of thousands of migrants are forced to endure each day. 

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