Human Rights violations of Yemeni migrant workers in Saudi Arabia

Over the past several years, and specifically since July 2021, authorities in Saudi Arabia have intensified their unfair targetingof Yemeni migrants. Yemeni migrant workers in Saudi Arabia have been subjected to a myriad of abuses perpetrated and sanctioned by Saudi authorities including arbitrary detention, discriminatory restrictions on employment practices, and theloss of livelihood due to the unjustified termination of employment contracts. The severity of these abuses have been so extreme that they have forced thousands of Yemeni professionals to return the ongoing conflict and dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

As part of the implementation of Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 policies, migrant workers have been governed by increasingly strict rules since 2017. For example, Saudi authorities imposed an annual fee of 100 riyals on each accompanying person and have since increased this fee each year. This makes it nearly impossible for migrant workers to travel with their families, as the rising fee for accompanying persons has quickly become untenable due to consistently low wages. Not only have fees for accompanying persons risen steadily, but fees on the workers themselves have also increased. Codified in Saudi law, the fees imposed on migrant workers is based on the proportion of foreign professionals to Saudi nationals in the workplace. If the number of foreign workers is larger than Saudi nationals, the migrants must pay 800 Saudi riyals per month. If the alternative is true, foreign workers only pay 700 riyals. This is in addition to the fee workers pay their sponsor. In addition to demanding various monthly fees, Saudi authorities also implemented a so-called “Saudisationpolicythat prohibited migrant workers from being employed in certain sectors.

The unwillingness of Saudi officials to humanely adapt their policies and make concessions in response to the global pandemic has created an environment even more dangerous and unfair than the pre-pandemic one. At a time when large companies had already dismissed many migrant workers and high contract termination rates resulted in a large contingency of Yemeni professionals forced to leave but unable to travel, the Saudi government allowed private-sector companies to reduce salaries of workers by up to 40%, with the further possibility of termination.

According to a 2020 estimate by the Yemeni government, more than two million Yemenis live in Saudi Arabia. Remittancesfrom Yemeni migrant workers have become a vital lifeline forYemen’s devastated economy. The World Bank estimated in 2017 that remittances sent from Yemenis in Saudi Arabia amounted to US $2.3 billion annually. Statistics from Yemen’s Ministry of Planning and Cooperation indicate that remittances sent from Saudi Arabia account for 61 percent of total remittances. It would not be an overstatement to suggest that remittances are one of the only economic elements and mean of livelihood left for people in Yemen. Understandably, remittances have dropped since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the actions of the Saudi government have purposefully served to exacerbate the situation of Yemeni professionals in Saudi Arabia and increase the suffering of those individuals who remain in or were forced to return to the ongoing conflict within Yemen.

In July of 2021, the Saudi Human Resources Ministry issuednew regulations for migrant workers, requiring businesses to limit the percentage of their workers from certain nationalities, including 25 percent for Yemeni nationals. By mid-August it was apparent that mass job terminations were targeting Yemenimigrant workers in Saudi Arabia which included medical staff, academics, and other professionals. In many cases, the dismissed professionals were not provided justification for government orders forcing the termination of their contracts.Although Saudi officials have refrained from commenting or offering a rationale for these mass terminations, reporting fromanonymous sources in Saudi Arabia suggests that thesediscriminatory tactics were intended to create jobs for citizens in the south as part of efforts to reduce Saudi unemployment of 11.7%, and as a reprisal against Yemenis due to the ongoing fighting between the Saudi-led coalition and Yemen’s Houthi group.

In addition to being fired without cause, Yemeni migrant workers in Saudi Arabia have also been arbitrarily detained.Based on statistics provided by the MOI in 2018, around two million people were arrested, 500,000 of whom were deported.This targeting has only intensified in recent years. Over the course of a single week in March 2022, mass arrests by Saudi authorities resulted in the detention of 15,000 migrants, most of them from Yemen. Once detained, migrants await deportation, often in abysmal conditions. Despite the dearth of data on the conditions of detention and deportation centers in Saudi Arabia, reporting from human rights organizations offers insight into theinhumane and degrading conditions of the detention conditions.Recent reports have revealed that Saudi authorities have conducted mass searches of the detention centers, with the express aim of confiscating phones and any devices that could be used to relay images of the mass suffering to the outside world. The timing of this escalation of repression has been described as an attempt to prevent these abuses being exposed during Ramadan, which would risk international criticism and further unrest in the region during the holy month. It has also been reported that law enforcement officials have required migrant workers and other individuals set for deportation to sign non-disclosure agreements forbidding them from sharing their degrading experiences. Although firsthand confirmation of abuses at detention centers remains limited, it should be noted that the statements by the migrants about their humiliating treatment in unsanitary and overcrowded facilities appears to correspond with the assessment of staffers from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and other UN agencies supporting relief efforts at returnee reception centers in Yemen and Ethiopia.

Despite the credible reporting of numerous human rights organizations, and the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council having expressed concerns about the overcrowding and poor conditions of detention facilities in Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK remain silent on the matter. The refusal of the West to address these grievous abuses is only made more condemnable when the truth of this mistreatment is fully acknowledged: by scapegoating Yemeni migrant workers and terminating their contracts because of the war with Yemen, Saudi authorities are effectively ascribing blame and forcing these individuals to return to a humanitarian crisis that they themselves were directly responsible for creating. Since the war began in 2015, attacks on civilian infrastructure by the Saudi-led coalition have been common. Airstrikes have targeted schools, hospitals, markets, and agricultural and water infrastructures. Environmental fallout of this war has included the destruction of ecosystems, the production of pollution and toxic dust, soil, and water contamination. This has led to persistent and worsening impoverishment and disease in Yemen, contributing to the forced displacement of 4 million people. 5 million people are suffering famine and disease because of this while 29 million people have been forced to rely on foreign aid for their survival.

The collective impact of the war and the Saudi-led coalition have had a devastating effect on Yemen’s civilians. According to the U.N., coalition airstrikes have killed or wounded an estimated 20,000 Yemeni civilians. Also, research conducted by the Washington Post shows that the Saudi-led coalition has been responsible for 67% of attacks and destruction of infrastructure there. These attacks include the deliberate bombardment of Yemen’s agricultural sector which has severely exacerbated food shortages. The deliberate destruction of health, sanitation, agricultural, and water infrastructure in one of the most water insecure countries in the world has been called a violation of International Humanitarian Law.

The silence of the US and the UK is yet another example of the West’s contribution to the “acute accountability gap” as it concerns Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations related to the war in Yemen. Both the US and the UK have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which prescribes in Article 3 the right to life, liberty, and security of person. Through their continued support of the coalition and their unwillingness to address Saudi Arabia’s broader human rights abuses against Yemeni migrant workers, they are indirectly violating this fundamental protection. If the Saudi government continues to discriminate against and unfairly target Yemeni professionals, those migrant workers who are unable tofind another employer to act as a sponsor will continue to beforced to leave the country or face deportation. For Yemenis, this can mean a risk to their lives.