Uncertainty grips thousands of expat workers facing Saudi deportation plan

Undocumented foreign workers may face arrest or deportation following kingdom's bid to ease unemployment among its citizens.

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Ms M just wants to go home to the Philippines. The 47-year-old mother came to Jeddah to work in a Saudi hospital nine years back. But for the past several years, she has been an illegal alien.
Her immigration papers expired three years ago, but she stayed in Jeddah and took a job as an assistant at a school. Last Friday, however, word circulated through the city that the ministry of labour was checking the documents of foreign workers more aggressively. The manager at her school told Ms M not to come in to work anymore and she does not have the money to get home.
The increased scrutiny comes after country's Council of Ministers declared on March 25 that it was illegal for employees to work for anyone other than their visa sponsor.
There are up to 3 million undocumented foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and in the past several days, Saudi authorities have stepped up inspections of work sites in an effort to locate and penalise them, including through deportation. The initiative appears to be part of wider effort by the Saudi government to find jobs for the country's own citizens.
Yemeni authorities say that 200,000 of their citizens could be deported and an Indian politican estimated that 150,000 Keralites could lose their jobs.
"The Ministry of Labour shall inspect facilities, and investigate irregularities discovered by the inspectors, and then forward them to the Interior Ministry to apply penalties on them," the Saudi Press Agency quoted the Council of Ministers as saying.
Two days after the announcement, the deadline also passed for small businesses in the kingdom to implement a new programme called Nitaqat.
First introduced in 2011, the initiative required at least 10 per cent of jobs in firms with less than 50 people be reserved for Saudi nationals. Companies were given two years to meet their quotas, but local newspapers reported that as the March 27 deadline approached, nearly 250,000 small and medium firms had been unable to meet the requirements.
Migrant advocates now say hundreds of thousands of workers face arrest or deportation for violating the labour code.
"There were a considerable numbers of undocumented migrants . nabbed during series of raids Kingdom-wide since last week and still ongoing," said John Leonard Monterona, the Saudi-based regional coordinator for the Filipino migrant rights group, Migrante.
In the past four months alone, his organisation has documented 12,000 Filipina migrants who had approached Filipino missions in the country seeking repatriation assistance.
There was "no truth" to rumours of raids on schools, hospitals, and homes to check for illegal workers, the deputy minister of labour, Dr Moufarrej Haqbani, said on Sunday. But he confirmed that the ministry was carrying out the "usual inspections".
Saudi Arabia, a country of 20 million citizens, is also home to about 8 million legal expatriates. Large sectors of the economy depend heavily on non-Saudi workers.
But concerns about unemployment among Saudis have sparked new calls for the kingdom to ease its dependence on expatriates. The country's Central Department of Statistics and Information reported in January that 12.2 percent of Saudis are unemployed. That numbers is thought to be far higher among youth.
"Unemployment among Saudis is a huge issue," said Jamie Ingram, regional analyst at IHS, a risk consultancy. "The authorities are sending a message out to Saudi citizens that we understand your complaints."
Among foreign workers, the inspections have caused near panic. Several embassies in Riyadh reported receiving large numbers of requests for exit permits that would allow violators to be repatriated without penalty.
"My situation is so dangerous, we are afraid of house raids," Ms M said.
A presidential adviser in Yemeni, Rajeh Badi, said on Monday that nationals from his country were already being deported. He said that as many as 200,000 Yemenis in the Kingdom had switched employers and could be deported as a result.
"If the decision is implemented, it will cause significant damage to the ... Yemeni economy, of which expatriates are a backbone since their remittances reach about US$2 billion [Dh7.3bn] a year."
In India, states such as Kerala could take a hit. Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala's secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist party, told The National that his party expects about 150,000 workers from Kerala to lose their jobs.
"You have to correct wrongdoings in the labour market, in terms of illegal workers, but just taking them off the street is not the way to do it, nor is deporting them," said Saleh Al Khathlan, vice-chairman of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights.
Oommen Chandy, the chief minister of Kerala, met the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, yesterday to discuss the possibility of introducing projects in Kerala to help those who are returning.
He said he planned to request a six-month amnesty from deportation for those Indians who lose their jobs under the new policy. But seeking to reassure expatriates on Saturday, he added that the diplomatic and trade relations between Saudi Arabia and India were "excellent".
Back in Saudi Arabia, some fear that cutting back on foreign workers could also affect the country's ambitious development plans.
"We have huge projects worth billions in construction, and taking this action and deporting illegal workers, I think it's going to reflect on the infrastructure. I'm sure a lot of projects will suffer," said Mr Al Khathlan. "There is already a shortage of labour."
This dependency on foreign workers may be one reason that Mr Ingram says he doubts that authorities will implement the new rules.
"If they did extend these inspections over a long period of time, the impact would be quite severe, and in many sectors the state would cease to function," he said.
"The rhetoric is perhaps stronger this time than in previous crackdowns, but really what you've got to wait and see is how long this goes on for."
foreign.desk@thenational.ae
Elizabeth Dickinson reported from Abu Dhabi and Suryatapa Bhattacharya from New Delhi
With additional reporting from Reuters
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