Around 200,000 Yemeni expatriate workers have returned from Saudi Arabia since June, according to estimates from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), amid a sharp escalation in deportations as Saudi authorities crack down on those breaking labour laws - developments that risk increasing poverty and destabilizing the transition in Yemen, say analysts.
The Yemeni government says it expects at least another 400,000 jobless returnees in coming months.
“[The returnees] complain of different kinds of violations, not necessarily from the authorities but from their sponsors (Kafeel’) when they refuse to pay them any compensation for the work that they have done in their companies,” said Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s Minister of Human Rights. “Other kinds of violations [take place] during the process of deportation, when they become subject [to] physical or psychological kinds of violations.”
The returns have placed a huge burden on Yemen’s fragile political transition, conjuring up memories of the 1990 expulsion of more than 800,000 Yemenis from Saudi Arabia, which contributed to the unravelling of a 1990 unification pact between the former North and South Yemeni states and led to the 1994 civil war.
“Without giving them the opportunities to live a decent life we… fear that they might be turned into element of instability,” said Mashhour. “For the short term indeed they are in bad need of immediate assistance like food and medical treatment, but for the long term we have to provide… [many] more job opportunities to cover their family’s needs and… [theirs] as well.”
Working in neighbouring Saudi Arabia has been a way for Yemenis to escape their country’s chronic unemployment; more than half of Yemenis aged 18 to 24 are unemployed.
“I went to Saudi two years ago to make a living for me and my family. The situation was good there, and there was no work here,” said Radhwan, 25, who has just been deported at the end of the grace period, after two years in Saudi Arabia. “On the first day, Jeddah’s biggest mall on Palestine Street was empty. Saudis don’t work in the supermarkets, factories and shops. So what now?”
According to figures from IOM, which are helping to provide emergency assistance to returnees at the Al-Tuwal crossing point, 93 percent of returnees are male, with 98 percent saying they returned because they lacked proper documents.
“Yemenis who have been in Saudi Arabia since their grandfathers migrated are being kicked out with this new law. They have nothing in Yemen; they don’t know anything about Yemen,” said Radhwan.
In late March 2013, the police initiated a brief crackdown on foreign workers as part of a government policy to enforce labour laws and create more jobs for millions of unemployed Saudi workers.
Raids and checkpoints were suspended in April to give foreigners a chance to get their papers in order, but the number of expatriates trying to obtain documents from their embassies overwhelmed capacity, and the government again extended the grace period to 4 November after which the crackdown began.
Under Saudi Arabia’s work sponsorship scheme, the original employers of expatriate workers need to give permission for a change of employment, as well as permission to leave. Many sponsors also take the migrant workers’ passports on arrival. Until now, the state has tolerated workers changing employers without the necessary paperwork because of the importance of foreign workers to the Saudi economy.
Thousands of families back home depend on Yemenis working abroad for life-sustaining remittance payments. According to surveys by IOM, three-quarters of those returning formerly sent back money to Yemen.
“The fact that the families will not receive these remittances anymore will have a major impact on them and the economy of their region,” said IOM’s Teresa Zakaria in a statement.
“We are looking, here, at approximately US$5 million lost in remittances for the months of October and November alone. Most of them are returning to areas with high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. The massive loss of income will inevitably exacerbate this situation,” she said.
Radhwan tried to smuggle himself back to Yemen to avoid being put in the deportees’ database - an attempt to preserve his chances of legally returning later - but he was caught and arrested.
“Saudi forces caught me at the border fence near al-Tuwal. They took me to jail and put me in a small cell overcrowded with Yemenis. On arrival, a guard followed me into the bathroom and beat me with a wire cable,” he said.
There are an estimated nine million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, including large numbers of Bangladeshis, Yemenis and Ethiopians. Human rights groups have frequently reported cases of abuse and exploitation, but because of the difference in economic opportunities between one of the poorest countries on the Arabian Peninsula, and one of the richest, many Yemenis keep going north in search of work.
Around 35 percent of returnees interviewed by IOM reported having been physically abused and having had their possessions confiscated in Saudi Arabia.
Abdul Salam, 27, from Yemen’s Rhayma province, has been smuggled into Saudi Arabia on four occasions and deported each time. “This time we were bussed back to [al-Tuwal,] Yemen. In the past they would fly us home.”
In Saudi Arabia, he worked for Yemeni businessmen from his village, selling phones, perfumes and sweets. “They [Yemeni owners] only hire smuggled workers during holiday seasons, like Hajj, when law enforcement is more relaxed. During the rest of the year, the legitimate business owners would get kicked out of the country if [they] were caught employing undocumented workers like me.”
When employed, Abdul Salam said he would send home about half of his monthly salary of 1,500 Saudi riyals ($400) to his family in Yemen. “Even then, with his contribution, there wasn’t enough money for the family,” said his younger brother, Mohammed, who lives in Sana’a. “Now we have even less. We can’t buy enough food for daily meals. We have no washing machine, no fridge. We can only afford the most basic things.”
With the enforcement of labour laws, Abdul Salam said it has become tougher to find smugglers who could be trusted to lead home the droves of Yemenis who have sought to avoid being identified in the formal deportation process.
Abdul Salam had been fingerprinted three times in prior deportations, but even after being beaten and robbed last year by the gang he paid to get him back into Saudi Arabia, he said he decided to take his chances again on a smuggler for his most recent cross-border trip back to Yemen, in the hope of avoiding another stint in the Saudi prison system.
“I found a smuggler who took me half way, then disappeared,” he said. “We started walking and found a farm, where we were given water and food. Before we finished eating, the police arrested us. They forced all 15 of us into a military jeep and drove back 400km to the jail, where we were crammed into a cell already completely full of people.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Saudi Arabia has the right to seek compliance with its labour laws, but should look at how the current system leaves workers vulnerable to abuse.
“You have to understand why so many workers in Saudi have irregular status, why so many are working for companies and individuals [who] are not their official sponsors,” Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at HRW, told IRIN.
“Employers have such inordinate power [over] their employees. Where workers are subjected to problems such as non-payment of salaries, poor sanitation, sexual and physical abuse, there is little the workers can do because they need their initial employer’s approval to change job. The worker system means they have to face abuse or work under the table illegally,” he said.
Relations between Yemen and its richer northern neighbour have often been tense, exemplified by perennial disputes over the location and policing of their shared 1,458km border. Saudi Arabia supported the now-defunct regime of Yemen’s ex-President Saleh in a civil conflict against Shi’ite Houthi rebels, a mutual enemy straddling the Yemeni-Saudi frontier.
With little chance of employment in Yemen, both Abdul Salam and Radhwan are planning to be smuggled over the border soon to look for work - but this time they intend to avoid Saudi Arabia and travel east into Oman.