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Can refugees seek protection in Saudi Arabia?

Updated: Oct 22, 2022

Saudi Arabia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the main global refugee protection instrument. The country neither has any specific domestic legal framework for refugee issues. According to estimates, about thirty-five percent of Saudi Arabia's roughly 30 million inhabitants are not citizens and hail from the major refugee-producing countries. Saudi Arabia is home to an estimated 250,000-500,000 Rohingyas, 300,000-400,000 Palestinians and 750,000-1,000,000 Syrians.⁣

Most of these migrants are mostly regularized by the Kafala system of sponsorship. The Kafala system necessitates every foreign national working in the country to have a sponsor, usually a Saudi national or a company. The worker is required to seek the permission of the sponsor to leave the country or to change jobs. The sponsor is also responsible for regulating the workers' residence permits for as long as they are in the country. While on the one hand, the Kafala system can provide residency and work, on the other hand, it does not resemble right-based refugee protection. Many experts believe that even the de facto refugees, who would otherwise meet the refugee definition promulgated in the 1951 Convention, are also attended to through a system of labour migration. The Kafala system has been used for particular refugee groups like the Palestinians, Eritreans, Yemenis, and Rohingya.⁣

With the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Saudi Arabia issued several royal decrees to regularize the status of Syrian nationals in the country. As a result, Syrians are allowed to reside in the country with a temporary 'visitor status, which is renewable every six months.⁣

Saudi Arabia maintains that its visa-based model preserves the dignity of the displaced Syrians by allowing them to have better access to residency, freedom of movement, and rights to work, education, and health care. However, in hindsight, the worker status, in reality, denies any financial support, legal protections, and path to potential citizenship afforded to many recognized refugees, making them, in turn, vulnerable to many restrictions or deportations at any time.

Besides the difficulties inflicted by the Kafala system, migrants are also subjected to many other challenges. For example, according to a 2020 Human Rights Watch Report, several Ethiopian migrant workers were detained in Riyadh in significantly degrading conditions. The report stated that the migrants were kept in highly overcrowded rooms for extended periods and that they also have been tortured and beaten with rubber-coated metal rods, which allegedly killed three migrants in custody in October-November 2020.⁣

Photo © LightRocket via Getty Images

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