Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 15:02 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2000
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Saudi Arabia , 1 June 2000, available at: [accessed 22 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Saudi Arabia

At the end of 1999, Saudi Arabia hosted about 128,600 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. This included 123,000 Palestinians, most of whom had legal status, but were not formally recognized as refugees by the Saudi government. Another 5,391 Iraqi refugees and 161 Afghan refugees were living in the Rafha camp. At year's end, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was assisting another ten refugees of various nationalities outside the Rafha camp. An additional 107 asylum seekers remained pending a UNHCR refugee status determination at the end of 1999.

Saudi Arabia, which has not signed the UN Refugee Convention, lacks a procedure or legal framework for determining refugee status. Since September 1998, however, Saudi Arabia has permitted UNHCR to carry out refugee status determinations for individual asylum seekers. In 1999, UNHCR recognized 26 refugees, denied the cases of 32 applicants, and closed the cases of 103 claimants.

Refugees from Iraq

During the 1991 Gulf War, more than 90,000 Iraqis sought refuge with coalition forces in the occupied zone of southern Iraq. Some 33,000 were eventually settled in two camps in Saudi Arabia, Artewiya (for single men) and Rafha (primarily for families and women). Artewiya camp was merged with Rafha camp during the last months of 1992. The vast majority of Iraqis remaining in Rafha at the end of 1999 were ethnic Arab Shi'a Muslims, primarily from urban areas and the marshes of southern Iraq.

Although Saudi Arabia provided health care, air cooling in the living quarters, and primary and secondary schooling, Rafha remained a closed camp in 1999. Saudi authorities prohibited refugees from traveling outside the camp, located in a highly militarized zone. Saudi soldiers regularly patrolled the camp in armed vehicles and strictly enforced a nightly curfew.

The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense and Aviation, through its military personnel and a Saudi Arabian nongovernmental organization called the International Islamic Relief Organization, controlled all camp services, although UNHCR maintained a presence in both Rafha and Riyadh during the year.


From the beginning of Iraqi resettlement from Saudi Arabia, the United States proposed that the combined number of refugees resettled annually to other countries at least equal the number the United States accepted. In fact, when the U.S. resettlement program ended in December 1997, the United States had resettled almost exactly half of the refugees who had been resettled from Rafha camp.

In 1999, UNHCR's Riyadh office assisted only 57 refugees to resettle from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar. Late in the year, however, the United States announced that it would return to Rafha in the year 2000 to consider 150 new refugee cases and as many as 250 old cases for resettlement. UNHCR reported that it has devised a plan to close the Rafha camp within three years and will push resettlement countries to accept more refugees from Rafha to meet this goal.


About 3,000 Iraqi refugees have voluntarily repatriated from Rafha since UNHCR established its presence in the camp in late 1991. The vast majority of these returned to Iraq during the first few years. Although few have done so since that time, 1999 saw a significant increase in voluntary repatriations; 102 Iraqis repatriated from Rafha during the year, compared with only 9 in 1998. UNHCR attributed the increase to an Iraqi amnesty issued in July 1999 that some refugees took as a sign that they might return safely home. UNHCR also said that the deep frustration and despair among Rafha refugees resulting from ten years residence in a closed camp with no prospect of resettlement also were likely to induce more to repatriate in 1999.

The Saudi government gives returning refugees a grant of about $800. UNHCR interviews potential returnees to ensure that their return is voluntary. UNHCR protection officers escort returning refugees to the border. The Saudi military provides transportation to the border, where relatives and Iraqi border authorities (but no international monitoring body) meet returnees.

Because Iraq refuses to ensure the safety of the returning refugees and restricts access to them, UNHCR does not promote repatriation for the Rafha population.

Other Foreign Nationals

Saudi Arabia's 1992 Basic Law says that "the State will grant political asylum," but qualifies this by adding "if the public interest mitigates" in favor of it. The government has not established procedures for adjudicating refugee claims, and did not amend its laws or regulations relating to asylum during the year.

In practice, many foreigners who might have well-founded fears of persecution if returned to their home countries stay in Saudi Arabia as part of its large expatriate work force rather than as recognized refugees. Foreigners comprise at least half of the country's work force, and one-third of Saudi Arabia's population. In 1995, the government began an aggressive campaign to increase the number of Saudi citizens represented in the work force and, in 1998, announced that Saudis should constitute at least five percent of the work force in private sector companies. Foreign workers come mostly from south and southeast Asia and poorer Arab countries.

Foreign workers must have Saudi sponsors. Employers, who routinely keep foreign employees' passports, control their movement within Saudi Arabia, as well as their ability to leave the country.

In 1997, the government announced an "amnesty" whereby undocumented foreigners living in the country could leave Saudi Arabia "voluntarily" without penalty if they left by October 15, 1997. After the deadline, Saudi authorities began arresting and deporting undocumented foreigners; by September 1999, as many as 1.1 million foreigners either had departed Saudi Arabia voluntarily or were deported.

Estimates on the number of Palestinians residing in Saudi Arabia range from 123,000 to 275,000. In general, Palestinians residing outside the mandate of the UN Relief and Worlds Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) area (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza) are considered prima facie refugees.

UNHCR assisted 161 Afghan refugees in Rafha camp in 1999, all long-term residents in southern Iraq during the Gulf War (and many of whom had moved to the Shi'a holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq to pursue Islamic studies and training). Most appeared not to be interested in resettlement to a non-Muslim country.

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