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Saudi Arabia: Yemeni Workers at Risk of Mass Forced Returns

August 31, 2021 at 6:01 pm

Foreign workers show their passports as they gather outside a Saudi immigration office waiting for an exit permit as Saudi security begin their search campaign against illegal laborers, on November 4, 2013 in downtown of Riyadh [FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images]

Saudi authorities have since July 2021 began to terminate or not renew contracts of Yemeni professionals, which could force them to return to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today.

Saudi authorities should suspend this decision and allow Yemenis to remain in Saudi Arabia with the ability to work.

In July, Saudi media outlets reported that Qiwa, a platform run by the Saudi Human Resources Ministry, had issued a statement about new regulations requiring businesses to limit the percentage of their workers from certain nationalities, including 25 percent for Yemeni nationals. Reuters reported in mid-August that mass job terminations were targeting an unclear number of Yemenis in Saudi Arabia. Workers who cannot find another employer to act as a sponsor are forced to leave the country or face deportation, which for Yemenis can mean a risk to their lives.

“Saudi authorities are effectively laying off and threatening to forcibly return hundreds, possibly thousands, of Yemeni professionals to an ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia is always seeking praise for its ‘humanitarian contributions’ to Yemen, but this decision puts many Yemenis at serious risk.”

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Saudi Arabia has contributed to Yemen’s human rights and humanitarian crises due to the Saudi-led coalition’s repeated violations of the laws of war in Yemen, which have exacerbated the ongoing catastrophe and devastated the country’s infrastructure.

On August 23, the International Union of Yemeni Diaspora Communities on Facebook said, “the union condemns the continuing campaign to target Yemeni workers in southern Saudi Arabia, despite the circulating news that there was an exemption of some Yemeni academics in some southern Saudi cities in an attempt to absorb the public’s outcry and anger toward these arbitrary decisions.”

Human Rights Watch in August interviewed 10 Yemeni health workers and five Yemeni academics based in areas across Saudi Arabia, as well as a Yemeni health workers rights group. All of those interviewed requested that their identities be withheld for fear of reprisal. Human Rights Watch also reviewed documents from Saudi employers to Yemenis communicating the termination of contracts or rejection to renew contracts.

All 15 Yemeni professionals individually told Human Rights Watch that the Saudi Labor and Social Development Ministry privately decided to terminate or bar renewal of Yemeni workers’ contracts. They said that Yemenis were the only ones targeted, and that other workers had not been affected. They said that an increasing number of Yemenis whom they knew had been informed that their contracts were being terminated or were denied renewal. They also said that they were aware of some terminations among Saudi-born Yemenis or Yemenis married to Saudi women.

In mid-August, the Yemeni Doctors Living Abroad Association, an international network of Yemeni medical workers that works to raise awareness about Yemeni health workers’ rights, told Human Rights Watch that hundreds of Yemeni health workers in Saudi Arabia had contacted the association to say they had been notified that their contracts would be terminated or would not be renewed, putting them at risk of deportation to Yemen.

About half of the Yemeni workers interviewed said that their Saudi employers had called and told them orally that their contracts would not be renewed. A Yemeni dentist who has been working in southern Saudi Arabia since 2015 said that his sponsor called him on August 10 to inform him that his contract would not be renewed and that he would receive two months’ salary as an end-of-service payment.

A Yemeni academic who has been teaching at a Saudi university since 2015 said that the university human resources department called him to inform him that his contract was going to be terminated.

A Yemeni doctor who has been working in Medina since 2017 said that he received an email from his health institution informing him that it would not renew his contract, which is set to expire in mid-October. A doctor who has been working in Riyadh since 2015 said that he received a similar document from his hospital’s human resources department.

All the Yemeni workers interviewed said that the end of their contracts would severely affect their livelihoods and residency in Saudi Arabia. They said that losing their jobs would also prevent them from financially supporting their families back in Yemen who depend on them. The Yemenis said that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, considered the world’s worst, would make it impossible for them to rebuild their lives if they go back to Yemen.

On August 23, the newly appointed United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, said that “there was recently a story about the possibility of remittances from Saudi Arabia being at risk, and that is of course a very important source of income for many people in Yemen.” He said the remittances should be protected.

The Yemeni Doctors Living Abroad Association on August 14 issued a petition with an appeal to the Saudi authorities to reconsider the decision and ensure humanitarian exemptions. Saudi Arabia has no laws or systems for people to seek asylum or refuge in the country.

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The Yemeni government said that as of 2020 more than two million Yemenis were living in Saudi Arabia. Remittances have been a vital pillar of Yemen’s devastated economy. The World Bank estimated in 2017 that remittances sent from Yemenis in Saudi Arabia amounted to US$2.3 billion annually. Remittances sent from Saudi Arabia constituted 61 percent of the total remittances sent from abroad, according to Yemen’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation in 2018. In June 2020, the then-United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, described the remittances as “the largest source of foreign exchange in the country for several years,” which have “provided a lifeline for millions of people.” Remittances have dropped since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Saudi government should sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, Human Rights Watch said. It should enact refugee law consistent with international standards, and establish fair asylum procedures for foreign nationals who may be at risk of persecution in their home countries. In the meantime, it should allow the UN refugee agency to exercise its mandate to determine the refugee status of asylum seekers and facilitate durable solutions for those recognized as refugees, including, where appropriate, integration in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s bad enough that many people are dying in Yemen as a result of the humanitarian crisis, without the Saudi authorities adopting policies that can result in forcibly returning more Yemenis to such dire conditions,” Nasser said. “Saudi authorities should reverse their policies on work visas that could lead to mass forced returns of Yemenis to where their lives would be at risk from the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis.”