The Letter of the Law:

Regular and irregular migration in Saudi Arabia in a context of rapid change

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a major destination country for migrants. An estimated 9 million migrant workers (regular) fill manual, clerical and service jobs, including 1.4 – 2 million migrant domestic workers.

There is no comprehensive migration policy in Saudi Arabia. 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 enters the country, he or she must obtain Iqama, a residency card, and a work permit. Foreign 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). This kafala or sponsorship system is a quintessential aspect of Saudi labour migration policy. The kafala system ties migrant workers’ residency permits to “sponsoring” employers, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or exit the country. According to many observers, the kafala system is inherently problematic as it ties migrant workers to an employer. Despite some improvements in Saudi labour law and proposals to reform the kafala system over the years, many domestic workers still endure forced confinement, food deprivation, and severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Sexual abuses of women and girls (as young as 14 years old) are not isolated incidents but reportedly occur on a large scale. In fact, according to respondents in Addis Ababa working with Ethiopian returnees, most Ethiopian women have been sexually abused in Saudi Arabia. Often this occurred in the private sphere of the houses they were working in as domestic workers.


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