In an effort to increase job opportunities for Saudi Arabian citizens, the Saudi government is detaining and deporting thousands of undocumented foreign migrant workers. Part of the deportation process includes detaining large populations in what has been described as “appalling” conditions. These detention centers have had reports of guard brutality, overcrowding, lack of food, and poor hygiene. Furthermore, most of these migrant workers are Somali, and are deported back to one of the most unstable, dangerous areas in the world.
Many of Saudi Arabia’s 7.5 million migrant workers are undocumented, seemingly from a confusing and corrupt sponsorship system. Documentation and oversight of foreign workers is left mostly to the employer, which has led to vast accounts of worker exploitation through passport, visa, and payment withholding.
Should the legal status of these workers be left up to their employers? Should these workers be deported to their home, where human rights and safety are not respected? This article focuses on personal accounts from Somali migrant workers and their struggle to balance work, safety, and legality.
Bader, Laetitia. “Saudis’ Mass Expulsions Putting Somalis in Danger.” Middle East Research and Information Project. 18 Mar. 2014. http://www.merip.org/mero/mero031814
Student Researcher: Logan Shewmaker, Indian River State College
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., Indian River State College
The ethical issue of migrant workers is not exclusive to Saudi Arabia. Since the beginning of time, laborers have traveled to wealthier areas to make a better life for themselves. If they are unable to settle their whole family in this wealthier land of opportunities, usually one or several men will work and send money back home. Because these laborers are foreign, and because they often give the appearance that they are taking jobs away from locals, it is typical that locals look down upon them as second class citizens. In the case of Saudi Arabia, this means that Somali workers are exploited by their employers without resolve or justice, inhumane detainment conditions, and deportation without concern for the safety of the workers.
First, the system of legal sponsorship by employer is easily corrupted. Under the “Kafala” (sponsorship), the employers are responsible for the workers residency paperwork. With this type of responsibility, theoretically, an employer could use a worker’s residency as some sort of collateral or incentive to obey orders. This system helps make blackmail easier. If an employer decides to withhold a worker’s paperwork or is negligent, the worker faces detainment and/or deportation. To ensure some sense of security and fairness, the legality of a worker’s residency and employment should only be between the worker and the government.
The detainment process is also unfair. Saudi Arabia is infamous for its prisons. Once detained, criminals are subject to merciless guards, poor sanitary conditions, and unsafe overcrowding. It is a violation of basic human rights to treat people this way, even if they are criminals. Whether foreign or citizen, people should be detained with some aspect of humanity and dignity.
Most of Saudi Arabia’s foreign laborers are Somali. Somalia has been one of the most dangerous places on earth for over 30 years. Constant warfare and terrorism are constant threats. It is obvious why many would attempt seeking asylum by working in Saudi Arabia. However, these dangers are also the reason why these workers will do everything they can to stay in Saudi Arabia. With the kafala system, it is not long until these workers are acting illegally. Once detained, these workers are sent back to their homeland, even if that means returning to a country fraught with terrorism. Even if these workers are breaking the law, do they deserve to be put in danger? The Saudi government should respect the safety of these workers and grant them asylum. Any hesitation of granting asylum based on the concern of job opportunities for Saudi citizens should be ignored. People’s safety is the first priority no matter what nationality. Besides, the only reason that these migrant workers may take jobs away is because they are more easily exploited by employers, which could be fixed by dismantling the kafala system.
The system for foreign employment in Saudi Arabia almost sets up the worker to fail. The worker moves to Saudi Arabia to seek employment and escape the dangers of home. Workers never have control over their paperwork, leaving them forced into illegal work. Once caught, the workers are subject to unethical detainment conditions, then sent back into danger. Also, once returned to Somalia, workers are often sent to refugee camps with poor conditions far from where their actual homes are. It’s almost enslavement. In addition to the obvious humanitarian improvements that should be made to their prisons, Saudi Arabia should offer a more direct and secure path for workers towards residency and employment, where the worker’s legal status is independent of their employer. Also, when an illegal worker is caught, the government shouldn’t be so quick to deport them, especially when the worker’s life is at risk back home. Saudi Arabia has the chance to help these people by offering employment and safety but the government is too concerned with Saudi citizen employment. The Saudi government views each worker as a financial entity, an object, a means to an end, rather than people, with rights.