RIYADH, Aug 8, (RTRS): For four months, texts from the government pinged into every mobile phone in Saudi Arabia ordering “illegal expatriates” to leave the kingdom before the end of an amnesty that expired in late July.
The campaign, “a nation without violators,” warned of fines, jail time and deportation for anyone caught without valid identity documents after the grace period, in a renewed push to reduce the kingdom’s abundant black market in labour.
Saudi authorities estimate more than 600,000 people took the amnesty, which allowed any foreigner in breach of residency laws in the world’s top oil exporter to leave without penalty. But millions of others have remained, either determined to stay or unable to avail themselves of the offer. Now they are awaiting a pledged crackdown against what Riyadh calls the “reckless people” who defied the order to leave. “We don’t know what will happen to us,” said Atif Alam, 28, an Indian worker at a desolate labour camp in eastern Riyadh who fears a police raid. He rarely leaves the camp, wary of being seized at police checkpoints on roads throughout Riyadh. Aurangzeb Akram, 43, a Pakistani worker at the camp, rejects the idea that he is “illegal” or “reckless”.
“I am legal. I came here (for the) Binladin company,” he said, holding up an expired “iqama,” or employer-sponsored residency card. Some 12 million of the 32 million people living in Saudi Arabia are foreigners, according to official figures, most of them low-skilled workers from Asia and Africa working in the construction and service sectors. But several million others live here outside the law, running unregistered businesses or accepting informal work with companies skirting requirements to hire Saudis on higher pay. Authorities have not released population estimates for “violators”, but before the start of the amnesty, a member of the advisory Shura Council called for the deportation of five million people, according to al-Hayat newspaper.
Some entered the country illegally, risking a dangerous journey through Somalia and Yemen, while others overstayed work visas, ran into labour disputes with their employers or came to perform the annual Muslim haj pilgrimage and never went home. Saudi authorities tolerated labour irregularities for decades, due to the expense and economic impact of expulsions. But with greater pressure in the past decade to create jobs for Saudis, for whom the unemployment rate is 12.7 percent, the government has committed to clearing out the excess workforce.
Akram quit his job last October, after a slowdown in construction prompted the Saudi Binladin Group to stop paying its sub-contractors and tens of thousands of foreign employees. But he said the company never processed his payments or his visa papers, and retained his passport, leaving him and the other 300 men at his camp without valid identity documents. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.