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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Saudi Arabia , 10 June 2002, available at: [accessed 23 October 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.

At the end of 2001, Saudi Arabia hosted about 128,500 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 123,000 Palestinians, most of whom had legal status, but were not formally recognized as refugees by the Saudi government. Another 5,084 Iraqi refugees and 109 Afghan refugees were living in the Rafha camp. At year's end, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was assisting another 75 refugees of various nationalities elsewhere in Saudi Arabia. An additional 234 asylum seekers remained pending a UNHCR refugee status determination at the end of 2001.

Saudi Arabia, which has not signed the UN Refugee Convention, lacks a procedure or legal framework for determining refugee status. Since September 1998, however, the Saudi government has permitted UNHCR to carry out refugee status determinations for individual asylum seekers.

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 2001 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 living quarters, and primary and secondary schooling, Rafha remained a closed, prison-like camp in 2001. Saudi authorities prohibited refugees from leaving the camp, which is 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.

As Iraqis in Rafha observed the tenth anniversary of their exile, many exhibited increasing signs of strain and frustration, resulting from their confinement in the camp and the poor prospects for resettlement or repatriation. In June, 40 refugees held a hunger strike and about 200 others demonstrated in the camp to demand a resumption of resettlement from Rafha. Although reports alleged Saudi mistreatment of some demonstrators, the reports could not be independently confirmed. Following intensive negotiations with UNHCR and the Saudi authorities, the refugees agreed to end their demonstration as it entered its thirteenth day. While the protest appeared to have been resolved peacefully, UNHCR officials expressed concern that tensions in Rafha would remain high in the absence of any progress on durable solutions.

Although the demonstrators were overwhelmingly single men, others in Rafha also showed signs of strain resulting from their long-term exile and confinement. Iraqi refugee women suffered disproportionately from the restrictions Saudi Arabia placed on them; Saudi authorities allowed women to move about the camp only when fully veiled and in the presence of a male escort. In 2001, one-quarter of the Rafha camp population were children under the age of nine who have known nothing but life in the camp.

USCR Actions and Resettlement

During the year, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) called upon the United States and other resettlement countries to negotiate with the government of Saudi Arabia to enact a comprehensive solution to close the refugee camp. In a July 24 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and a Washington Post op-ed piece, USCR called upon the U.S. government to negotiate a quota arrangement with other countries to resettle some 3,200 Rafha refugees whom UNHCR has identified as seeking resettlement. It also urged Secretary Powell to negotiate with the Saudi government to permit the local integration of the remaining 2,000 refugees, who wished to stay in Saudi Arabia. In two separate letters to the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, D.C., dated September 4 and October 16 respectively, USCR also urged the government of Saudi Arabia to permit the local integration of this group. Finally, USCR contacted the governments of Australia, Canada, and Sweden, calling upon them to participate in a resettlement effort to close the Rafha camp.

Although some officials, including those in the U.S. government, expressed an openness to USCR's recommendations, progress toward resolving the situation of the remaining refugees in Rafha appeared limited as 2001 drew to a close. While the Saudi government in November showed a willingness to UNHCR to open the Rafha camp and grant some refugees freedom of movement locally and the right to work, authorities refused to allow refugees to live outside the camp. Moreover, the Saudi concession remained contingent upon commitments from other countries to accept the refugees interested in resettlement. For their part, resettlement countries, such as the United States and Canada, appeared reluctant to resettle more refugees from Rafha without firmer commitments from Saudi Arabia on local integration and from other resettlement countries on participation in any comprehensive solution to close the camp. The perception of the Iraqi refugees in Rafha as difficult to integrate coupled with security concerns following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, also appeared to discourage resettlement countries from returning to Rafha.

Between 1992 and 1997, about 24,700 refugees were resettled from Rafha, 12,100 in the United States, the remainder mostly in Iran, Sweden, Australia, and Canada. Although the United States and Sweden accepted an additional 338 refugees in 2000, only one refugee was resettled from Rafha in 2001.


Since UNHCR established its office in Rafha in late 1991, 3,434 Iraqi refugees have repatriated voluntarily. The vast majority of these returned to Iraq during the first few years. Some 240 refugees repatriated in 2001, compared with 66 the previous year.

Although Iraq issued an amnesty in June 1999, which some refugees took as a sign that they might return home safely, UNHCR did not promote repatriation from Rafha in 2001 because Iraq refused to ensure the safety of the returning refugees and restricted access to them. Although UNHCR reported a breakthrough in negotiations with the Iraqi government at the end of 2001 whereby the government agreed to allow the agency to monitor repatriations, the safety of returning Iraqi refugees – and by extension, the prudence of promoting returns – remained in doubt at year's end. In 2000 and in previous years, there were unconfirmed reports that the Iraqi authorities arrested and detained some Iraqis who repatriated from Rafha. Others reportedly disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances.

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 workforce, rather than as recognized refugees. 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.

Estimates on the number of Palestinians residing in Saudi Arabia range from 123,000 to 290,000. In general, Palestinians residing outside the mandate area of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza) are considered prima facie refugees.

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