SAU figures


Saudi Arabia hosted about 288,000 refugees, about 287,000 of them Palestinians and about 1,000 others. Most of the non-Palestinians lived without formal status, having entered either as pilgrims or as migrant workers. Between 5,000 and 6,000 Somalis, including children tried to enter Saudi Arabia from Yemen since September.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma reportedly lived in Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, and along the Red Sea coast without official refugee status.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

In January, the Government deported several Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan without allowing them to see a judge despite official persecution of the sect in Pakistan. In February, in a swap with Yemen for a dozen Saudis, authorities repatriated three Yemenis to their immediate arrest with no opportunity to seek asylum. In September, authorities reportedly deported Chinese Muslim Uighurs residing in the Jeddah area. The Government routinely deported trafficked child beggars to Somalia and Chad without looking for their families or assessing the safety of return.

Saudi Arabia was not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or to the 1967 Protocol, nor the 1965 Casablanca Protocol concerning Palestinian refugees. The 1992 Basic Law provided that "the state will grant political asylum, if so required by the public interest" but the Kingdom had no legislation implementing this provision and the Government held that only those who had residence permits could apply for asylum and barred those who entered illegally or overstayed on pilgrimage visas from ever receiving it.

In a 1993 Memorandum of Understanding with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Government agreed to "provide protection to refugees present in the Kingdom" and grant refugees temporary permission to stay. Since 1998, UNCHR carried out refugee status determination on the Kingdom's behalf.

In 2004, Saudi Arabia revised its naturalization laws to allow qualified foreigners to apply for Saudi citizenship, provided they were fluent in Arabic, had lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 or more years, had a clean criminal record, and were financially self-supporting. They included the stateless Bidoon but not Palestinians. Applicants also had to meet religious requirements, and Saudi Arabia reserved the right to revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens within 10 years if they committed a crime.

Although Saudi Arabia classified Palestinians as foreigners, UNHCR reported that the Palestinian refugees had moved toward "a more favorable treatment that still does not exist in the local legislation."

Detention/Access to Courts

Saudi Arabia confined some Eritrean refugees, all former military personnel, in the Ministry of Interior's (MOI) Jizan coast guard facility. The facility also held two more Eritrean pilots who sought asylum in 2006. UNHCR had access to the detained refugees.

In February, when a Palestinian refugee tried to renew his residency permit, passport officials in Jeddah arrested him for working for an employer other than his sponsor. They detained him for weeks in a deportation center without allowing him visitors, telephone calls, or outside food or clothes. In May, a judge dismissed the charges against another Palestinian – his employer sponsor complained that he stole cigarettes – after he had spent about a year and a half in Al Ha'ir Correctional Facility. He could not leave prison, however, until he found a new sponsor. In December, authorities arrested in Mecca a Tunisian who feared religious persecution in his home country and held him without charges in Medina well into 2008.

MOI issued identity documents, which authorities respected, to 161 Iraqi refugees. Refugees reported that some government agencies did not recognize UNHCR certificates.

The Government required all foreigners to carry identity cards designated "Muslim" or "non-Muslim." Religious police reportedly pressured employer sponsors (see below) not to renew the cards of non-Muslims if they had participated in private non-Muslim worship.

The 1992 Basic Law extended to all individuals its protections against arbitrary deprivation of liberty and ex post facto punishment and explicitly extended to foreign residents access to court in civil matters.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

In December, the Government allowed 151 Iraqi refugees at the Rafha camp to leave and reside in urban areas after having confined them there since the 1991 Gulf War. Eighty-three refugees remained.

Foreigners, with no exception for refugees, required travel permits for specified distances and periods in order to travel within the country. Palestinians who left Saudi Arabia for six months or more could not return without acquiring a new employer or sponsor, a virtual impossibility from abroad.

The Government prohibited all women from driving, with no exception for refugees, and prohibited them from renting furnished apartments. The Government required exit visas for anyone to leave the country and women also required permission from a close male relative.

Foreign workers also required their employer sponsors' permission to travel abroad. Employer sponsors could ask the Government to prohibit employees from leaving the country while commercial or labor disputes were pending and compel employees to accept settlements or be deported.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

The 1970 Residence Regulations required foreigners, including refugees, to have residence permits. The permits, in turn, required sponsors. Refugees then had to obtain work permits, costing around 5,000 riyals ($1,300). According to the Regulations, sponsors could cancel sponsorship for "legitimate reasons" and have their workers detained and deported. Foreigners could not change jobs without their sponsor's permission or without finding a new sponsor. Most employers kept foreigners' passports although the law prohibited it. The sponsorship relationship sometimes led to involuntary servitude, nonpayment, debt bondage, intimidation, and other abuse. Foreigners sued employers in labor court for violations and sometimes won but it could take years and they could not work unless they found a new sponsor willing to accept liability for any counterclaims from the previous sponsor.

The 1992 Basic Law, however, provided that "the State shall provide job opportunities to all able-bodied people," implicitly affirming a right of refugees to work.

Refugees enjoyed the same rights as other foreigners to engage in business, but required sponsorship. In practice, most foreigners owned businesses after paying a Saudi citizen who acted as the nominal owner. In September, the Council of Ministers passed regulations to permit foreign businessmen to acquire a 12-month, multiple-entry visa without an invitation from a local company or letter of introduction from the Chamber of Commerce.

The 1992 Basic Law did not limit its protections of property rights to citizens.

Public Relief and Education

Refugees did not qualify for social security, although the Government granted Iraqi refugees some aid and social services. All refugees had access to education in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities cooperated with UNCHR and other humanitarian organizations, allowing them to aid refugees and asylum seekers. While the 1992 Basic Law promised job opportunities for "all able-bodied people," it reserved its guarantee of health services and social security to citizens.

USCRI Reports

  • USCR Welcomes Start of Iraqi Refugee Repatriation; Urges International Community to Facilitate Return of Other Iraqis Wishing to Return Home (Press Releases)
  • USCR Urges Saudi Arabia to Stop Warehousing Iraqi Refugees (Press Releases)
  • Overview of Numbers and Conditions of Iraqi Refugees in the Middle East and Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq (Press Releases)

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