LONDON — Tens of thousands of foreign workers are leaving Saudi Arabia, as authorities carry out a visa crackdown on illegal immigrants. Analysts say the expulsions are aimed at improving employment for native Saudis, as the jobless rate hits 12 percent. But human rights groups say the migrants find themselves caught between the police and abusive employers.
A convoy of buses reached the Saudi-Yemeni border from Riyadh Wednesday; on board, hundreds of workers expelled from Saudi Arabia - the latest arrivals in an exodus of around 65,000 migrants.
Among them was Ahmed Amin - who says Yemenis in particular are being targeted.
"The crackdown is for kicking out Yemenis in particular, because even if you correct your visa status, you can't work. These days, your work only pays enough to cover your employer’s sponsorship costs. You can't afford to pay to the labor office, the passports authority and everything else from your salary, " said Amin.
Lilian Ambuso from the International Organization for Migration says many of the returnees are in bad shape.
"Most of the cases that arrive are quite dehydrated. This is due to the fact that some of them have been in the detention center for some time," said Ambuso.
There are an estimated nine million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. Authorities began the expulsions earlier this month after giving foreign workers a seven-month amnesty to rectify any visa discrepancies - which saw tens of thousands of workers leave voluntarily.
There were violent clashes between migrants and police in poorer parts of the capital. At least three people were killed.
The crackdown should be seen in the wider context of the Arab uprisings across the region since 2011, says Jane Kinninmont on London-based policy institute Chatham House.
“The response of the Gulf governments has been to see the protests around the region as partly a response to economic problems, particularly a shortage of jobs for youth. So their policy response has tended to be spending more money, increasing public sector jobs, and also trying to get more citizens into the workforce which tends to be at the expense of expatriates," said Kinninmont.
Labor laws in Saudi Arabia mean many foreign workers find themselves unable to leave, says Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch.
“You might ask if the situation is so bad, why don’t workers just leave the country? And the problem is they can’t. To leave the country they have to procure an exit visa signed by their legal employer which can be very difficult," said Coogle.
Employers will struggle to replace the workers, says Jane Kinninmont of Chatham House.
“Some of them have skills and some would argue in menial jobs at least, a work ethic that a lot of wealthier Saudis don’t have. Another issue though is pay. Employers find that they can pay migrants, especially illegal migrants, very low wages," said Kinninmont.
The Saudi crackdown comes as human rights groups warn of the widespread abuse of migrant workers in the construction sector in neighboring Qatar - which is building facilities to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.