Mass Deportations Looming: Saudi Arabia gears up to expel millions of migrants…again

History repeats itself, as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia once again announces that all foreign workers staying in the country illegally have to leave. Just over three years ago, Saudi Arabia launched a similar campaign, resulting in mass deportations and reported human rights violations, as described in reports by RMMS and Human Rights Watch, among others. This article explores the current drive to expel undocumented foreigners and compares the situation of the previous campaign and mass deportations in 2013/14, with the current context, with a particular focus on how Ethiopian migrant workers will be affected.

A Nation Without Violations

On 19 March, the Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry launched a campaign dubbed ‘A Nation Without Violations’, to give residency and labour law violators 90 days to leave the country without having to face penalties. The 90 day grace period became effective on March 29 and during this period those who voluntarily leave the kingdom will be able to legally return to it in the future (but they will be unable to legalise their status without leaving the country first). According to the Saudi government, illegal immigrants who fail to take advantage of the 90-day amnesty period will face certain deportation.

Exactly how many foreign workers will be affected is hard to say, with various numbers being reported, mostly by local media sources. According to government officials the campaign will likely lead to the exit of at least 1 million violators, saying this “would revive the economies of companies and establishments and protect small businesses and projects from illegal expats, while also reducing unemployment rates and creating a safe economic and social environment”. The Middle East Monitor reported that five million foreign workers of all nationalities could be deported. In any case, it is clear that a very substantial proportion of Saudi Arabia’s foreign workers – estimated at 9-12 million, or a third of the total population of 32 million – will be affected.

The current campaign follows after a year of strikes by foreign workers and unrest in Saudi Arabia, due to unpaid wages, related to the oil market’s decline which has damaged the oil-dependent Saudi economy. According to the Middle East Monitor when public protests spilled over into violence dozens of foreign workers were flogged and jailed in January this year.

Previous ‘Saudization’ campaigns

These campaigns are not a new phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. Policies to increase the proportion of Saudis in employment, to address (or pre-empt) possible popular unrest and to limit the amount of money leaving the country as remittances have surfaced regularly since the mid-1990s, under the so-called ‘Saudization’ approach. Nevertheless, the country continued and continues to be heavily reliant on immigration labour, with labour migrants swiftly returning to the Kingdom to meet the evident labour demand. The previous crackdown on irregular migration in 2013 was unprecedented though in terms of the speed and volume of mass deportations, but looks set to be repeated in the near future. Early 2013 a similar amnesty period was announced, allowing workers to either regularise their status or leave the country without a penalty. By the time the amnesty period ended – after it was extended twice and hundreds of thousands had already left Saudi Arabia voluntarily – mass deportations came into effect and Saudi authorities started to carry out raids to arrest and deport irregular migrants. Again the estimates vary, from 1 million migrants who were deported or left voluntarily over the course of 4 months, to 2.5 million or even 5.5 million over a longer period since the first announcements.

Deported migrants reported the campaign gave rise to abuse

As reported by RMMS, based on secondary research and interviews in Addis Ababa with deported Ethiopians, they were detained for weeks by Saudi authorities in appalling conditions, which included severe overcrowding, lack of access to air and daylight, sweltering heat and limited medical assistance. Other abuses included theft of migrants’ belongings, beatings, sexual abuse and killings. Nevertheless, these events attracted negligible interest from the international press. Similarly, the current announcements and potential for a repetition of the events surrounding the previous crackdown, has hardly been covered by international media.

Affected populations of the upcoming deportations

As in 2013/14, the announced measures will affect all foreign populations in Saudi Arabia. Between November 2016 and February 2017, Saudi Arabia already deported close to 40,000 Pakistanis, over visa violations and security (terrorism) concerns. There are approximately 4 million Indian foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and during the previous mass deportations 150,000 were deported. Some 30,000 Egyptians who are overstaying their visas in Saudi Arabia have now been encouraged to “swiftly” leave the kingdom.

Yemen was the most affected country during the previous mass deportations, with over 655,000 Yemeni returnees between June 2013 and December 2014. It is unclear how many Yemenis currently reside in Saudi Arabia. Official and most recent UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDSA) statistics indicate there were close to 583,000 Yemenis in Saudi Arabia as of December 2015. Although Saudi media reported that over 1 million Yemenis have entered Saudi Arabia in recent years fleeing civil war, this number has not been verified. According to UNCHR just under 40,000 Yemeni refugees arrived in Saudi Arabia since the start of the conflict in Yemen in March 2015. Nevertheless, it is likely hundreds of thousands of Yemenis will be severely affected if they are deported to a country which is now labelled as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis – with 18.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

Another affected group are the Ethiopian migrants. In 2013/14, more than 165,000 Ethiopians were deported over the course of only 4 months. UNDESA statistics indicate that over 124,000 Ethiopians currently reside in Saudi Arabia, but that number only covers regular migrants. Since the last mass deportations, at least 260,000 Ethiopians travelled to Saudi Arabia irregularly; 2016 was a record year with 117,000 arrivals in Yemen.

Based on media reports, the current campaign is already having an impact. More than 32,000 migrants have left since the beginning of the campaign – of which approximately 3,000 are Ethiopians – and the Interior Ministry claims to have arrested 100,000 violators since the launch. Another possible impact – although too early to draw solid conclusions – are the current lower numbers of Ethiopians migrating to Saudi Arabia, via Yemen. Arrivals in Yemen in the first quarter of 2017 are unusually low with a 17 percent decrease when compared to the final quarter of 2016, and a more significant 44 percent drop when compared to the same period in 2016. A similar drop in arrivals was visible during the 2013/14 deportations, with the lowest arrival numbers in four years.

Lessons learned from the previous deportations – the case of Ethiopia

During the 2013/14 deportations the Ethiopian government and partners were caught by surprise. Initially, the Ethiopian government and international actors were expecting, and preparing a response for, approximately 23,000 deportees, using the official migration statistics by UNDESA, which put the number of Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia in 2013 at 28,048. During those 4 months of mass deportations, planning figures had to be adjusted on a weekly basis, to 40,000, 80,000 and so on. This shows the importance of using unconventional methods of data collection to get an actual and realistic picture of migration flows. Based on the ongoing monitoring of arrivals in Yemen by UNHCR, the Danish Refugee Council and Yemeni partners, it was known that between 2006 and 2013 at least over 334,000 Ethiopians had arrived in Yemen, with the majority transiting onwards to Saudi Arabia. Taking this number into account, would have given the Ethiopian authorities and international agencies a much better indication of what to expect and how to prepare.

Some are keen not to repeat the past miscalculations. The Ethiopian government and international partners, led by IOM, are expecting and preparing for a much higher number of deportees this time, with IOM even quoting figures of 750,000 Ethiopians who might be affected by the deportations. Referring to the 2013 situation, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the nation is exerting strenuous efforts to safeguard the rights of citizens abroad and facilitate repatriation. The Government of Ethiopia requested IOM to lead the collective effort, in order to provide post-arrival assistance, transportation to home communities and reintegration support, while the government established a national taskforce to effectively coordinate the safe return of Ethiopians from Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, as with Yemen albeit on a different scale, mass deportations to Ethiopia will add to the already existing challenge of dealing with the drought. Late April, the Ethiopian government increased its count of the number of people requiring emergency food aid from 5.6 million to 7.7 million. This figure is expected to rise further as the southeast of the country is now confronted with another fierce drought, while the government’s budget is already strained from the 2016 drought and crises and possible famine in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen means that donor funding will be limited.


It remains to be seen whether the grace period will be extended again and to what extent mass deportations will match those of 2013/14. However, there is every indication that the upcoming mass deportations might even surpass the previous ones. The Saudi government seems to be at least as serious as three years ago, this time not even allowing migrants to regularise their status in-country while the Saudi economy is in a worse state than in 2013.

While it seems, at least in the case of Ethiopia, that the governments and partners are much better prepared this time – expecting more realistic numbers of deportees – these deportations come at a particularly challenging time for Ethiopia, Yemen – and also Somalia – countries that are all facing severe food insecurity or even potential famine. Hundreds of thousands of deportees, who will have to return to conflict (Yemen) and drought (Ethiopia, Somalia) affected areas of origin, where many of those who stayed behind have lost their livelihoods, will put a further strain on these countries. Finally, broader coverage of the situation by international media – contrary to 2013/14 – would go some way in ensuring human rights are more carefully monitored this time and in creating a better protection environment, to avoid the many human rights violations that surrounded the previous deportations.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.