Breaking News:

There is an ongoing crackdown on undocumented labour migrants in Saudi Arabia following the expiration of an amnesty granted by King Abdullah on April 3 2013. During the seven month grace period that ended on November 3rd, undocumented workers in the 9 million strong migrant labour force were required to regularize their stay or leave the Kingdom. It is reported that nearly one million migrants from various countries took advantage of the amnesty and left voluntarily. With its expiry, the Saudi authorities have initiated mass deportations which began in mid-November 2013. To date there have been an estimated 75,000 Ethiopians returned to Addis Ababa and the numbers are expected to reach over 100,000 by the end of December 2013. 

Key mixed migration characteristics

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a major destination for migrants. Saudi Arabia – which has the second largest oil reserve in the world and maintains the world’s largest crude oil production – has been attracting large numbers of migrants ever since the discovery of oil reserves to accommodate the growing needs of the economy and fill the labour and skills shortages.[1]

Most recent statistics

It is estimated that 9 million migrant’s workers fill manual, clerical and service jobs.[2] A significant number of this total comprises of irregular (illegal) migrants. Migrants in Saudi Arabia mostly come from India, Ethiopia, Egypt, Pakistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Sudan and Jordan. While migrants constitute a third of the total population, they comprise 70% of the labour force and 95% of the private sector labour force.[3] Ethiopians dominate the African migrants flow but a significant number of local Yemenis also migrate north to Saudi Arabia.  

Reportedly, Saudi Arabia claims to need 0.75 – 1.5 million domestic workers. To that extent, the Kingdom has increasingly sourced labour from Ethiopia as the supply of domestic workers from previous sending countries in Asia has dwindled or been rejected.[4] In fact, in the whole Gulf region there appears to be growing number of MDWs from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt, reflecting a shift to cheaper sources of labour.[5]

Since early 2013, Saudi Arabia has cracked down on irregular migrants in the country in two main ways. Firstly a policy declaration required all irregular migrants to regularize their situation or face detention and deportation and secondly work on the cross-desert fence between Yemen, and Oman and Saudi Arabia was re-doubled in an effort to seal the 1,800 Km border. The moves also reflects a desire to reduce the reliance on migrant labour, believed to total 9 million workers, with up to 2 million and 3 million illegal workers[6].

Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Saudi Arabia

UNHCR statistics as of January 2013



Asylum seekers






Palestinian refugees = 290,000

Total Saudi Arabian refugees worldwide = 817 

Total Saudi Arabian asylum seekers worldwide = 149

Main drivers and motivation for migration

In terms of irregular migration, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia acts as the greatest magnet in the Horn of Africa and Yemen region. Its force of attraction pulls migrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen as well as from around the world. Many Ethiopian and Yemeni migrants appear to be engaged in a circular process of clandestine entrance, work, detection and deportation by authorities followed by repeated attempts or successful re-entry into the Kingdom. In 2006 it was reported that Saudi Arabia carries out a staggering 700,000 deportations of irregular migrants every year.[7]

Although many enter the country illegally, larger numbers enter Saudi Arabia legally but then over-stay illegally. They do so either while on a pilgrimage or through a ‘sub-contracting’ process, whereby sponsors recruit more migrant workers than there are actual jobs available and then place them with another broker in order receive twice the fee, from two successive brokers. This puts the immigrant in an illegal situation until the second broker finds that worker a job.[8] Another type of irregular stay occurs when a migrant worker takes up employment for a person other than the sponsor. Although estimated to be quite substantial, no systematic or reliable information on numbers is available. Migrants are not allowed to work for any other person than the sponsor.[9]

As a country of origin - mixed migration

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a relatively low emigration rates according to data from the World Bank 2012, The net migration rate is placed at 300,000

As a country of mixed migration destination

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a major destination for migrants. Saudi Arabia has been attracting large numbers of migrants ever since the discovery of the immense oil reserves to accommodate the growing needs of the economy and fill the labour and skills shortages.[10]

The World Bank ranked Saudi Arabia fourth in the list of top immigration countries in its 2011 Migration and Remittances Factbook.[11] Labourers in Saudi Arabia remit more money than those in any other country except the United States. An estimated 9 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical and service jobs.[12] 

As a country of mixed migration transit

The strict border controls now make it difficult for migrants to travel to or cross into Saudi Arabia (whether regularly or irregularly).

Characteristics of migration (means and modes)

Saudi Arabia has established immigration systems that contract employment agencies to recruit both skilled and unskilled migrants from mostly Asia and Africa, and to fill several employment opportunities that are less attractive to locals. Until recently, smugglers had taken advantage of the porous Yemeni- Saudi Arabia border to bring in irregular migrants (those without documentation) into the country. Those who transit on foot rely on good will from the locals to reach their preferred destination.

Risks and vulnerabilities of mixed migration in Saudi Arabia

In 2004, Human Rights Watch published the first comprehensive examination of the variety of human rights abuses that foreign workers experience in Saudi Arabia. In the years that followed, they continued publishing reports on abuse of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. Many migrant workers paid large sums of money to recruitment agencies in their home countries to secure legal employment visas. Once in Saudi Arabia, they found themselves at the mercy of legal sponsors and de facto employers who had the power to impose oppressive working conditions on them. The authorities in Saudi Arabia have also been accused of being indifferent to a wide range of abuses against domestic workers. The abuses have included non-payment or underpayment of wages; wage exploitation; forced confinement in the workplace; excessively long working hours; and no rest days. They may also suffer physical, psychological, and sexual abuse; food deprivation and inadequate living conditions; confiscation of their identity documents; restricted communication; limitations on their ability to return to their home countries when they wish to do so; and exploitation by labour agents in their countries of employment.

National immigration laws and policies

Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or to the 1967 Protocol, and thus has no legal obligation to adhere to any framework set out by the UNHCR or organizations of similar purpose.[13] The 1992 Basic Law provides that "the state will grant political asylum, if so required by the public interest."[14] Saudi Arabia has however no legislation implementing this provision and the government allows only those with residence permits to apply for asylum.[15]

There is no comprehensive migration policy in Saudi Arabia either. However, an Iqama regulation (the Residency Act) exists, which acts as a set of laws pertaining to foreign migrants’ status and rights in the country. Once a foreigner is to enter the country, he or she must obtain Iqama, a residency card, and a work permit. The main institutions overseeing and coordinating migrant flows into the country are the Ministry of Interior and the Labour Department. Foreign or non-Saudi workers are not allowed to enter the country without the sponsorship of an eligible employer or a permitted Saudi household (in the case of domestic workers).[16]

In 2013, Saudi Arabia developed a new policy law targeting the increasing number of migrants in the country working without regular documentation. The new policy law “Nitaqat law “seeks to remove illegal migrant workers, and to boost employment for locals. This new law allows foreigners to only work for their sponsors. The new law limits employment for spouses, also expatriates cannot perform any job other than the one written In their job cards.

[1] Khalifa, 2012, p. 2.

[2] USCRI, 2009.

[3] World Bank, 2012.

[4] RMMS, 2013d, p. 81.

[5] Fernandez, 2010, p. 251.

[6] World Socialist Web Site: (April 10, 2013) ‘Saudi crack down on migrant labour’

[7] Fargues, 2006, p. 14-15

[8] Fargues, 2006, p. 14-15

[9] Shah, 2009, p. 12.

[10] Khalifa, 2012, p. 2.

[11] World Bank, 2012.

[12] USCRI, 2009.

[13] Khalifa, 2012, p. 7.

[14] Khalifa, 2012, p. 7.

[15] RMMS, 2013d, p. 81.

[16] Khalifa, 2012, p. 3. 

recommend to friends
  • gplus
  • pinterest