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Saudi Arabia’s Immigrant Exodus

Michael Johnson

A Sudanese citizen died in Riyadh after clashes with police on Wednesday, renewing concerns of unrest among immigrant communities in Saudi Arabia. On October 9th, two people died and 68 others were injured during clashes with Saudi authorities. The recent strife comes after raids targeting illegal immigrants and a new visa regime came into force.

Saudi authorities have launched a broad crackdown on undocumented workers since a seven-month amnesty period ended on November 4th. A task force of 1,200 Labor Ministry employees now patrol construction sites and businesses to search for illegal workers. More than 16,000 migrants were detained within 48 hours of onset of the ban, according to officials. Police also erected checkpoints and are reportedly targeting individuals outside mosques.

A Yemeni worker, deported from Saudi Arabia, carries his bag after leaving a bus on which he was deported. (Photo: AFP)

Similar trouble arose after the new visa rules began last spring, prompting the amnesty. While many foreign workers corrected their papers over the past few months, thousands of migrants are now leaving the country. Local media suggest up to 23,000 Ethiopians turned themselves in to be deported and up to 30,000 Yemenis left recently. Before the crackdown, foreign workers were estimated to comprise one third of Saudi Arabia’s population of 27 million people.

The country’s rulers began the restrictions over concern for high unemployment, especially among the kingdom’s youth, and the inability to integrate large immigrant populations into Saudi society.  While deporting foreign workers will free up jobs and raise wages domestically, few residents may be interested in the new positions. Many of the undocumented migrants worked in low skilled positions as janitors or constructions workers, with their absence hurting local firms. Similarly, human rights groups have voiced concern over the treatment of foreign laborers from Africa and South Asia working in the Gulf states.