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Foreign Workers Flee Saudi Arabia Amid Crackdown

  • VOA News

Thousands of mostly African workers have gathered in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, seeking repatriation after two people were killed in overnight clashes between migrant workers and vigilante residents backed by police.

At least 68 people were injured in the clashes Saturday and two killed. Police said they arrested 561 foreigners.

One of those killed was a Saudi, said a government statement, and the other was not identified. An Ethiopian man was killed in a visa raid last week.

Ethiopia's foreign minister condemned the deaths, and said that his government was working to bring its citizens home.

“This is unacceptable. We call on the Saudi government to investigate this issue seriously. We are also happy to take our citizens, who should be treated with dignity while they are there,” Foreign Affairs Minister Tedros Adhanom said.

He also said Addis Ababa had formally complained to Riyadh and that embassy staff were working to help Ethiopians return home.

Hundreds of foreign workers clashed with police on Saturday night and into Sunday in Manfouha, a poor district of southern Riyadh where many low-income expatriates live.

The Saudis said earlier this year that they would no longer tolerate visa irregularities which have led to a large black market in cheap foreign labor in the world's top oil exporter. The government began to crack down on migrant workers after a seven-month grace period ended on November 3 for foreign workers to legitimize their status. Saudi media reported that police had arrested 16,000 people by midweek as they fanned out across cities, raiding shops and construction sites.

Saudi officials say during the grace period, four million foreign workers, mostly from Africa and Asia, obtained the right documents and about one million left the country. It is not clear how many illegal workers remain.

Crowded Scenes

In Manfouha, a long line of buses slowly filled up as Africans arrived from neighboring streets, alone or in groups and carrying bags.

Groups of people in Arab and south Asian dress stood on rooftops to watch. While the scene unfolded peacefully, many police stood nearby and several ambulances were also present.

“No iqama (residence permit),” said one man who said he was seeking repatriation to Ethiopia. He said he had arrived in Saudi Arabia illegally a year ago after paying smugglers 5,000 Saudi riyals ($1,333) to make the dangerous trip over the Strait of Hormuz and overland through Yemen.

“There's no money at home. Nothing at home,” he said, pulling a suitcase on wheels.

Many immigrants say they could not take advantage of the amnesty due to bureaucratic problems or disputes with their original employers.

On Saturday, the Labor Ministry announced it would continue to allow foreign workers to rectify their visas, but only if they paid fines for previous breaches of regulations.

More than 9 million of Saudi Arabia's 28 million inhabitants are foreigners.

While many of those targeted in the crackdown entered the country legally but later broke the terms of their residence permits by changing jobs, many others were smuggled across the border or came as pilgrims and did not return home.

International human rights watchdogs have criticized Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, for their treatment of foreign workers and for instituting a “sponsorship” system which gives employers extensive control over foreign employees.

Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's biggest economy, is pushing to create more jobs for its citizens and stave off unrest. The kingdom made job creation a priority after uprisings in 2011 toppled leaders across the Middle East.
Some information in this report was contributed by Reuters.
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