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Anger is rising over attacks on migrants in Saudi Arabia

This article is over 8 years, 2 months old
Hibist Kassa, a socialist in Ethiopia, on the background to the detention of and assaults on Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia
Issue 2381
Ethiopians in London protest outside the Saudi embassy
Ethiopians in London protest outside the Saudi embassy (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The crackdown against migrant workers in Saudi Arabia began on 4 November. Ten people are confirmed to have died—including children—but the real figure is much higher.

The police and gangs of armed thugs are hunting down migrants. Many have been detained. In just one centre in Al-Shumaysi, in Jeddah, there are about 35,000 migrant workers including children. African and Asian workers have been targeted. In one incident in Manfouah police announced that all Africans were to be deported. This triggered a riot.

Images of men being lynched and shown off like hunting trophies have appeared on social networks. One shows the body of a young man who had worn Ethiopian national colours wrapped around his head. In a video at the crime scene, with Saudi police present, someone was recorded saying in Arabic, “The dog is dead”.

Ethiopians are among the largest groups of migrants in the country—more than 23,000 are reported to have surrendered to police.

Some of the migrant workers are refugees who, over decades, have fled political repression from countries such as Eretria, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The Saudi government claims it is only arresting illegal migrants, but reports suggest that all migrants are affected regardless of their status.

Moreover, Saudi law forces migrants, particularly unskilled workers, to live illegally. Officially an employer must sponsor an applicant before they can enter the country.

That employer must release them before they can work for another employer, let alone leave the country.

Employers use this provision to seize passports, withhold wages and inflict other abuses on workers. Currently Saudi officials are prosecuting 752 cases of migrant workers on work and residency charges. These workers are likely to face fines of about £16,500 and prison terms of about two years.

The labour laws are also restrictive for Saudis too. Saudi workers are only allowed to join unions if they are at least 25 years old and have worked for two years in a company.

For domestic workers, it is much worse. They can be easily locked up by employers and abused in many ways. Even before the recent attacks there were regular reports about young women being violently attacked and raped in the Middle East.

It is also not uncommon for abused women workers, particularly domestic workers, to be forcibly returned to their employers. An employment agency was quoted by a Saudi news agency advising employers to “confiscate their workers address book to limit their chances of outside contacts.”

Despite the risks, young women join long queues in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa to get to the Middle East.

Both Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia are seen as economic miracles.

Saudi Arabia has annual growth rates of up to 6 percent, but also the highest unemployment levels recorded in its modern history.

In 2012, 12 percent of Saudis were unemployed. From 2009-2013, the unemployment rate was 34 percent including 60 percent of women and 75 percent of young people.

The Saudi government claims deporting migrant workers will create openings for its nationals.

Ethiopia has recorded growth rates of up to 11 percent. But this has been based on deepening inequality and goes along with high unemployment.

About 200 people demonstrated outside the Saudi embassy in Addis Ababa on 15 November.

The police blocked roads to prevent more people from joining them and arrested about 12 people, including a 70 year old woman.

The Ethiopian government initially claimedthat all is well in Saudi Arabia. A government spokesperson and Foreign Minister have both criticised the demonstrators as being “anti-Arab” and harming good relations between both states

Many thousands of Ethiopians are still in Saudi Arabia, some in detention camps and others in hiding. The Ethiopian government reports that about 16,000 people have been repatriated. This figure is contested. Nonetheless this still leaves tens of thousands behind. None of the deceased have been returned to their families for burial.

In one case, a group of women who are being held captive managed to send a message pleading to be rescued from captors who are regularly raping them.

The anger over the crackdown in Saudi Arabia has led to protests in 30 countries and 80 cities around the world.

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