At the end of 2000, 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 5,166 Iraqi refugees and 107 Afghan refugees were living in the Rafha camp. At year's end, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was assisting another 36 refugees of various nationalities outside the Rafha camp. An additional 171 asylum seekers awaited a UNHCR refugee status determination at the end of 2000.
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.
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 2000 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 2000. 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.
As the tenth anniversary of their exile drew near, Iraqis in Rafha exhibited increasing signs of strain and frustration, resulting from their confinement in the camp and the poor prospects for resettlement or repatriation. Iraqi refugee women suffered disproportionately because of 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. During 2000, one-fourth of the Rafha camp population were children under the age of nine who have known nothing but life in the camp.
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 accepted almost exactly half of the refugees who had been resettled from Rafha camp.
Since the end of 1997, few resettlement delegations have returned to Rafha because it was thought at the time that most of the remaining refugees either did not wish to be considered or were ineligible for resettlement.
With no change in their situation by 2000, however, many refugees who had previously refused resettlement had changed their minds. 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. Although the United States and Sweden returned to Rafha during 2000 and approved 272 and 66 refugees for resettlement, respectively, these and other resettlement countries appeared reluctant to consider resettling the remaining refugees in Rafha, despite many meeting resettlement criteria.
Some 3,194 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 in recent years, the number of refugees voluntarily repatriating increased during the last year and a half; since June 1999, 168 Iraqis repatriated from Rafha – 66 in 2000 – compared with only 9 in 1998. UNHCR attributed the increase to an Iraqi amnesty issued in June 1999, which some refugees took as a sign that they might return safely home.
During 2000, however, there were unconfirmed reports that the Iraqi authorities arrested and detained some Iraqis who had recently repatriated from Rafha.
UNHCR also said that the high level of frustration and despair among Rafha refugees resulting from ten years residence in a closed camp and the closing of the primary resettlement program at the end of 1997 also were likely inducements to repatriation in 1999 and 2000.
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 the 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 workforce rather than as recognized refugees. Foreigners comprise at least half of the country's work force, and one-third of Saudi Arabia's population.
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 1995, the government began an aggressive campaign to increase the number of Saudi citizens represented in the work force. After an amnesty expired in October 1997, Saudi authorities began arresting and deporting undocumented foreigners; by 2000, as many as 1.1 million foreigners had either departed Saudi Arabia voluntarily or were deported.
Estimates of 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.
UNHCR assisted 107 Afghan refugees in Rafha camp in 2000, 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). Although most were not thought to be interested in resettlement to a non-Muslim country in previous years, 48 Afghans from Rafha resettled in the United States during 2000.