Yemen, the poorest and least-developed country in the Arab world, is facing yet another major crisis. A recent crackdown in Saudi Arabia against illegal foreign workers has led to the massive deportation of Yemeni workers back to their impoverished country, already wracked by insurgency and an al-Qaida threat that has destabilized large parts of the nation.
Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis could be expelled as a result of the campaign, which began in March with a door-to-door search for illegal workers by Saudi authorities. The campaign is designed to reduce a workforce of 7 to 9 million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, and it comes as the Kingdom tries to re-invigorate a campaign to entice more Saudis to go to work.
“Obviously, this has led to the firing of many foreign laborers,” said Marco Chimenton
of the International Office for Migration (IOM) in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. He said the government of Yemen estimates that a total of about 700,000 Yemenis have lost work in the crackdown because they lacked proper visas or work permits. About 200,000 Yemenis have already been deported.
Regional experts say the campaign started slowly but is expected to accelerate soon.
“There was a grace period, lots of news advertising, checkpoints and threats to raid places of business for people who didn’t have residency permits or who were working under the table or not working for their official sponsor,” said Adam Coogle
of Human Rights Watch in Amman.
“There were a couple of days in Jeddah when nobody showed up for work because everybody was terrified about labor raids,” he said.
The Saudi government decided to slow the process while King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz announced the first of two grace periods to give foreign workers time to correct their papers or leave the country. The next deadline is November 3.
Returning to Yemen
Saudi authorities defend the latest moves against illegal or undocumented foreign workers, noting that 35 percent of young people are unemployed and 1.8 million Saudis receive unemployment benefits. There also have been disturbing reports, fueled by Twitter, of attacks by housemaids from Ethiopia and Indonesia that have reportedly generated a Saudi backlash against migrants.
Ahmed F. Al Fahaid, the Ministry of Labor
’s deputy minister for international affairs, said Saudi Arabia also is trying to regularize work standards and requirements with countries who supply migrants. He said such an agreement was recently signed with the Philippines and similar agreements are being negotiated with other countries.
“The issue with Yemenis in Saudi Arabia is a little bit different,” said Coogle of Human Rights Watch. Thousands of Saudis are of Yemeni descent and many in the Yemeni workforce have been moving back and forth across their common borders to find work since the Kingdom was founded. “When they first came, the Yemenis were needed to build roads and infrastructure.”
“The problem right now is mainly caused by the turn of the screw on foreign laborers that has happened in early March of this year by the Saudi government,” said Chimenton.
He said government and IOM teams are headed to the border to assess the needs of the growing number of migrants returning to Yemen, but he says there are inadequate resources to meet their needs.
Chimenton said Saudi buses loaded with Yemenis under Ministry of Interior guard continue to bring Yemenis to the border.
“They’ve been doing it during the first reprieve and their doing it now,” he said.
“Some of them reportedly have not had time to go home before they are deported and come without their possessions. They have had no food or water for a long time .”
The buses arrive sporadically with no coordination with Yemeni authorities and as many as 1,000 people have been dumped on the border at a time.
“Everyone is expecting the numbers to pick up now,” Chimenton said.
Despite protests, many leaving
The Saudi initiative has sparked protests in Riyadh and abroad. In April, Yemenis protested in front of Saudi embassy in Sana’a and about 700 Philippine nationals sought
refuge from the crackdown in the compound of the Republic of the Philippines consulate in Jeddah.
The Saudi government said that about 200,000 illegal migrant workers voluntary left Saudi Arabia and another 1.5 million corrected their situation by changing their employment status from illegal to legal through their embassies, or by returning home to reapply for new visas.
Saudi authorities say foreign workers will continue to play a large role in their country’s workforce, but that all workers should be legal and be regulated.
“Saudi Arabia is becoming a big hub for foreign workers,” said Al Fahaid. He estimates the foreign work force sends home about $30 billion a year. But an adviser to Yemen’s foreign minister estimates that the loss of remittances from the expelled Yemenis will be about $2 billion a year -- a loss which will be felt by nearly all Yemenis.