Saudi Arabia hosted about 291,000 refugees, about 290,000 of them Palestinians and about 1,000 others. As Saudi Arabia will only consider asylum claims of those with residence permits, most of the non-Palestinians lived without formal status, having entered either as pilgrims or as migrant workers. 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.
About 70,000 stateless Bidoon also resided in the country without formal status. The Government issued resident permits for five-year periods to these native-born Arabs, who are among the poorest in the country, but denied the Bidoon employment and educational opportunities. For the first time, the Government announced in 2008 its intent to study the Bidoon issue.
Saudi Arabia forcibly returned 77 Iraqi refugees who had lived in the country since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. The refugees had been living in Rafha camp or the nearby town, and had received assistance from the Government up until their deportation.
Saudi Arabia deported more than 23,600 Indonesian migrant workers, most of them women. The majority had entered Saudi Arabia illegally, but others overstayed on Umrah pilgrimage visas. Most lacked passports and other forms of identification.
Saudi Arabia began the year holding 28 Eritrean refugees in detention, the last of a group of 214 former members of the Eritrean military that it held at a Coast Guard facility since 2005. During the year, Sweden accepted all 28 of them for resettlement. Saudi Arabia allowed UNHCR full access to them over the course of their confinement.
It also detained two Chechen asylum seekers on suspicion of terrorist activity, but allowed UNHCR to visit them and perform refugee status determinations.
Roughly 160 Iraqi refugees formerly from Rafha camp held identity documents from the Ministry of the Interior, allowing them to work and move freely throughout the country and receive social services.
In November, Saudi Arabia stopped extending the validity of Umrah visas and increased its efforts to identify visa overstayers. An immigration official said that those discovered without valid visas would be fined 10,000 rials (around $2,700).
Law and Policy
Saudi Arabia is 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 provides that "the state will grant political asylum, if so required by the public interest." However, the Kingdom has no legislation implementing this provision and the Government allows only those with residence permits to apply for asylum. The Government bars those who entered illegally or overstayed on pilgrimage visas from ever receiving asylum.
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, UNHCR carried out refugee status determination on the Saudi Arabia's behalf.
In 2004, Saudi Arabia revised it 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 in 2007 hat the Palestinian policy had moved toward "a more favorable treatment that still does not exist in the local legislation."
An October 2008 Amnesty International report concluded that Saudi Arabia executed a disproportionate number of foreigners. Foreigners are often unable to follow court proceedings in Arabic, lack legal assistance, lack the wealth and social connections that might help them win a pardon. According to the report, Saudi Arabia executes more two people a week and half of all the executed are foreigners.
Detention/Access to Courts
The Government requires all foreigners to carry identity cards designated "Muslim or non-Muslim." Religious police reportedly pressure employer sponsors not to renew the cards of non-Muslims if they participated in private non-Muslim worship.
The Government has provided identity documents to Iraqis who arrived in 1991. UNHCR issues certificates to refugees it recognizes under its mandate in coordination with the Government, and authorities generally recognize them. UNHCR is able to secure the release of registered refugee if authorities do detain them over a lack of identification.
The 1992 Basic Law extends to all individuals its protections against arbitrary deprivation of liberty and ex post facto punishment. The legislation also explicitly extends access to court in civil matters to foreign residents.
Refugees cannot use courts to vindicate their rights.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
Refugees need to have residence permits to pass checkpoints when traveling between provinces of Saudi Arabia.
Palestinians who leave Saudi Arabia for six months or more cannot return without acquiring a new employer or sponsor, a virtual impossibility from abroad.
The Government prohibits all women from driving, with no exception for refugees, and prohibits them from renting furnished apartments. The Government requires exit visas for anyone to leave the country, and requires that women wishing to travel abroad obtain permission from a close male relative.
Foreign workers need their employer sponsor's permission to travel abroad. Employer sponsors can ask the Government to prohibit employees from leaving the country while commercial or labor disputes are pending and can compel employees to accept settlements or be deported.
Right to Earn a Livelihood
The 1970 Residence Regulations requires foreigners, including refugees, to have residence permits. To obtain a residence permit, foreigners must find an employer to sponsor them.
The 1992 Basic Law provides that "the State shall provide job opportunities to all able-bodied people," implicitly affirming a right of refugees to work. Refugees must obtain work permits, costing around 5,000 Riyals (about $1,300). According to the Residence Regulations, employers can cancel residence sponsorship for "legitimate reasons" and have their workers detained and deported. Foreigners cannot change jobs without their sponsor's permission or without finding a new sponsor. Although prohibited by Saudi law, most employers keep foreigners' passports. The sponsorship relationship sometimes leads to involuntary servitude, nonpayment, debt bondage, intimidation, and other abuse. Foreigners sue employers in labor court for violations and sometime win, but often the judicial process is time-consuming. Additionally, workers cannot work unless they find a new sponsor willing to accept liability for any counterclaims from the previous sponsor.
Once refugees obtain employer sponsorship, they enjoy the same rights as other foreigners to engage in business. In practice, most foreigners own businesses after paying a Saudi citizen who acts as the nominal owner. The 1992 Basic Law does not limit its protections of property rights to citizens.
Saudi Arabia requires that all legal migrant workers undergo biannual medical checkups, which test for infectious diseases like HIV. In 2008, foreign workers reported discrimination, and a lack of rights, including access to hospitals. Additionally, authorities reportedly used the threat of lethal injection for those testing HIV-positive to intimidate migrant workers.
Public Relief and Education
Refugees do not qualify for social security, although the Government grants Iraqi refugees some aid and social services. Refugees with residence permits have access to education in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities cooperate with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations, allowing them to aid refugees and asylum seekers. While the 1992 Basic Law promises job opportunities for "all able-bodied people," it reserves its guarantee of health services and social security to citizens.
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