In November of 2013, the government of Saudi Arabia began expelling large numbers of foreign nationals, including some 550,000 Yemenis, 180,000 Ethiopians, and 36,000 Somalis. While there has been little international attention or condemnation of these deportations, the returning individuals and their countries of origin have suffered many logistical, economic, and social ramifications due to this decision.
According to Saudi authorities, the primary reason for the expulsions is a desire to purge the private sector of illegal migrant workers in order to make room for Saudi nationals. While the exact demographics of the expelled population remain unclear, this justification is weak because the majority of people deported are thought to be unskilled workers, whose jobs are unlikely to be filled by Saudis. These mass deportations are also not unprecedented: in 2010, Saudi Arabia deported thousands of Somalis to Mogadishu, and in 1990-1991 an estimated 700,000 Yemeni migrant workers were abruptly expelled in reaction to Yemen’s indecisive stance on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The exact legal status of many of the expelled migrants is ambiguous. Saudi Arabia has a foreign labor force of up to 9 million people, and some who entered the country legally fall victim to a system that allows abusive employment brokers to sell them falsified visas and extort their vulnerable position. Many returnees arrive home having undergone emotional trauma before they were deported, in addition to the extortion and physical abuse suffered en route. Furthermore, many of the returnees face a great deal of shame once home, where relatives might view the return home as a failure to provide. Despite these experiences, many returnees say they fully intend to re-migrate to either Saudi Arabia or other common destinations in the region – even if doing so will expose them to further abuse, abduction, or arrest.
Of particular concern among the deportees is the Somali contingent, some of whom are unaccompanied minors who have been directly deported by air to Mogadishu. Data provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) indicate that approximately 70 percent of these deportees are from south-central Somalia, which remains highly insecure.
In June 2014, UNHCR pointed out “the security situation in many parts of Southern and Central Somalia continues to be volatile… Protracted armed conflict has had devastating consequences, including massive displacement, weakened community structures, gross human rights violations and the breakdown of law and order.” UNHCR also stated that Somalis from these parts of the country “are likely to meet the criteria for refugee status,” and on this basis urged states to refrain from deporting them to their country of origin.
While there are indications that UNHCR has broached the subject with Saudi authorities privately, a public statement on the crisis is desperately needed, as deported Somalis continue to arrive in Mogadishu reporting multiple cases of family separation and numerous other human rights violations. The social and economic impact of the expulsions on receiving countries has not yet been fully assessed, but threatens to be highly damaging. These nations – including Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen – are amongst the poorest in the world, and they have received limited support from the international community in their efforts to cope with the sudden wave of deportees. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia remains the largest global provider of remittances, one which the economies of Ethiopia and Yemen largely depend on.
Ultimately, the migrants’ clear determination to return to Saudi Arabia, or pursue other dangerous migratory routes, reveals a revolving door of humanitarian challenges that deserves a stronger response from the international community, including UNHCR. There is a significant gap in the humanitarian system in relation to the victims of mass expulsions. While we often leap into action in response to armed conflicts or natural disasters that displace people from their homes, the victims of mass expulsions – and the countries from which they originate – are largely left to fend for themselves.
Katherine Georges is an intern at Refugees International.