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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Saudi Arabia , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 24 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 2002, Saudi Arabia hosted about 246,000 refugees. These included 240,000 Palestinians, who mostly had legal residence status, but were not assisted or formally recognized as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR provided protection and or assistance to 5,400 other refugees, mostly Iraqi (5,200). Other nationalities included Afghans (109) and Somalis (69). During 2002, UNHCR received applications from 200 asylum seekers.

Saudi Arabia is not party to the UN Refugee Convention and lacks a procedure for determining refugee status. 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. Since September 1998, however, the Saudi government has permitted UNHCR to carry out refugee status determinations for individual asylum seekers and, in 2002, Saudi Arabia donated 1.8 million dollars to UNHCR.

Refugees from Iraq

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War and the failed uprising in southern Iraq, more than 33,000 Iraqis, mostly Shi'a, fled to Saudi Arabia. Most were eventually resettled in other countries, but the remaining 5,200 were confined to the desolate Rafha camp, which is located on a barren stretch of desert among the most prone in Saudi Arabia to extremes of heat and cold and to dust storms. Rafha is enclosed by double barbed-wire fences and guarded by the Saudi military. There is a strict nightly curfew and violators may be imprisoned. The authorities do not allow the women to circulate without a male escort and a full veil. Some 40 percent of the camp's residents are children under 18.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers visited the Rafha camp in October 2002 and appealed to the United States to take the lead in resettling 3,000 Iraqis in several countries, and to Saudi Arabia to integrate the remaining 2,200 locally. The United States, however, refused to resettle any more Iraqi refugees in the United States.

As the United States prepared for war on Iraq at the end of 2002, Saudi Arabia announced that it would close its borders and would not allow a major influx of Iraqi refugees. The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) wrote to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia reminding it of its obligations under customary international law to admit fleeing Iraqi refugees.


Some 108 of the Iraqi refugees at Rafha returned to Iraq during 2002. Since UNHCR established its office in Rafha in late 1991, more than 3,500 Iraqi refugees have repatriated voluntarily, the vast majority during the first few years.

There were uncorroborated reports by relatives in the United States that Saudi authorities tortured at least two Iraqi refugees for months, accusing them of spying for Iraq. Reportedly, they had been found with a computer, although it had no Internet access. The sources indicated that the refugees were about to be forcibly returned to Iraq where some of their relatives had been executed. USCR contacted the Saudi Arabia office of UNHCR on their behalf in January 2003, but did not receive any information on their cases.

The government of Iraq issued an amnesty in October 2002, which some refugees took as a sign that they might return home safely. Many refugees were wary, however, of the looming war and lack of safety back home. The amnesty covered Iraqi deserters and political opponents whether they were present in Iraq or abroad. It also covered persons having committed common crimes and those sentenced to death.

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