Migrants in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have been the subject of intensified efforts to increase deportations in recent months.
Kafala system leaving migrants at risk of deportation
As a result of the kafala system which governs the relationship between migrant workers and their employers in these states, many migrant workers are forced into the sphere of undocumented migration status as a result of no longer having their immigration status sponsored by their employer. Furthermore, migrant workers risk becoming undocumented if their employer fails to extend their residency permit.
This system drives a significant power imbalance between employers and those who seek work in the Gulf as a result of economic necessity and rely on their wages to send remittances to their home countries.
The kafala system notoriously leaves low-paid migrant workers highly vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and forced labor as the fear of becoming undocumented can prevent workers from seeking to change employers and leave exploitative conditions.
Deportation campaigns instead of protecting workers
Reform to the kafala system to rectify this power imbalance and better protect migrant workers from exploitation is sorely needed. However, instead of addressing the labor system, “the Gulf states periodically launch deportation campaigns […] to reduce the population of undocumented workers.”
Migrants in Saudi Arabia have faced a particularly intense crackdown. According to Amnesty International, the conditions in detention centers where migrants are held prior to their deportation are dire. They have documented cases of torture, overcrowding and lack of access to healthcare.
From 24 November to 28 December 2022 over 73,800 migrants were arrested. According to authorities, 43,200 migrants were arrested for violating residency laws, 11,500 arrested for violating labour regulations and 19,200 arrested for violating border regulations. During the same period, the Saudi government deported 46,000 migrants with irregular status. Saudi’s Ministry of Interior stated that of 28 December 2022, 36,800 migrants are “currently undergoing procedures for violating [residency] regulations.
Migrants are rarely able to contest their arrest and deportation and have limited access to justice. This is especially true of mass deportation campaigns that are currently being undertaken by Gulf states. For those who may be victims of trafficking and forced labor, authorities may fail to effectively identify them and the risk of harm and re trafficking that deportation entails goes entirely unnoticed.