Amnesty over, ‘il­le­gal ex­pats’ await Saudi crack­down now

Kuwait Times - - NEWS -

RIYADH: For four months, texts from the gov­ern­ment pinged into ev­ery mo­bile phone in Saudi Ara­bia or­der­ing “il­le­gal ex­pa­tri­ates” to leave the king­dom be­fore the end of an amnesty that ex­pired in late July. The cam­paign, “a na­tion with­out vi­o­la­tors,” warned of fines, jail time and de­por­ta­tion for any­one caught with­out valid identity doc­u­ments af­ter the grace pe­riod, in a re­newed push to re­duce the king­dom’s abun­dant black mar­ket in la­bor. Saudi au­thor­i­ties es­ti­mate more than 600,000 peo­ple took the amnesty, which al­lowed any for­eigner in breach of res­i­dency laws in the world’s top oil ex­porter to leave with­out penalty.

But mil­lions of oth­ers have re­mained, either de­ter­mined to stay or un­able to avail them­selves of the of­fer. Now they are await­ing a pledged crack­down against what Riyadh calls the “reck­less peo­ple” who de­fied the or­der to leave. “We don’t know what will hap­pen to us,” said Atif Alam, 28, an In­dian worker at a des­o­late la­bor camp in east­ern Riyadh who fears a po­lice raid. He rarely leaves the camp, wary of be­ing seized at po­lice check­points on roads through­out Riyadh. Au­rangzeb Akram, 43, a Pak­istani worker at the camp, re­jects the idea that he is “il­le­gal” or “reck­less”. “I am le­gal. I came here (for the) Bin­ladin com­pany,” he said, hold­ing up an ex­pired “iqama,” or em­ployer-spon­sored res­i­dency card.

Some 12 mil­lion of the 32 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in Saudi Ara­bia are for­eign­ers, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures, most of them low-skilled work­ers from Asia and Africa work­ing in the con­struc­tion and ser­vice sec­tors. But sev­eral mil­lion oth­ers live here out­side the law, run­ning un­reg­is­tered busi­nesses or ac­cept­ing in­for­mal work with com­pa­nies skirt­ing re­quire­ments to hire Saudis on higher pay. Au­thor­i­ties have not re­leased pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates for “vi­o­la­tors”, but be­fore the start of the amnesty, a mem­ber of the ad­vi­sory Shura Coun­cil called for the de­por­ta­tion of five mil­lion peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to al-Hayat news­pa­per. Some en­tered the coun­try il­le­gally, risk­ing a dan­ger­ous jour­ney through So­ma­lia and Ye­men, while oth­ers over­stayed work visas, ran into la­bor dis­putes with their em­ploy­ers or came to per­form the an­nual Mus­lim haj pil­grim­age and never went home.

Saudi au­thor­i­ties tol­er­ated la­bor ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties for decades, due to the ex­pense and eco­nomic im­pact of ex­pul­sions. But with greater pres­sure in the past decade to cre­ate jobs for Saudis, for whom the un­em­ploy­ment rate is 12.7 per­cent, the gov­ern­ment has com­mit­ted to clear­ing out the ex­cess work­force.

Akram quit his job last Oc­to­ber, af­ter a slow­down in con­struc­tion prompted the Saudi Bin­ladin Group to stop pay­ing its sub-con­trac­tors and tens of thou­sands of for­eign em­ploy­ees.

But he said the com­pany never pro­cessed his pay­ments or his visa pa­pers, and re­tained his pass­port, leav­ing him and the other 300 men at his camp with­out valid identity doc­u­ments. The com­pany did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

The king­dom of­fered a first grace pe­riod back in 2013, af­ter in­tro­duc­ing a quota sys­tem for hir­ing Saudis in the pri­vate sec­tor. At least 800,000 peo­ple were de­ported in the crack­down that fol­lowed, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures com­piled from lo­cal me­dia. In some cases that cam­paign turned vi­o­lent, with un­rest in ur­ban ar­eas and de­ten­tion cen­ters. Pres­sure for eco­nomic re­form has only grown af­ter the oil price halved since 2014.

Au­thor­i­ties ap­pear to have run a more or­ga­nized amnesty this time, although they did not re­spond to Reuters re­quests for com­ment on the planned clam­p­down. Work­ers in Riyadh re­port in­di­vid­ual ar­rests, but no mass raids or ex­pul­sions so far. Still, thou­sands of work­ers slipped through the amnesty’s cracks. They were re­fused ex­its, many of them ap­par­ent vic­tims of slow-mov­ing bu­reau­cracy, com­plex le­gal prob­lems, or both. — Reuters

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