THE SAUDI TRAP: Thousands of 'illegal' Nepali migrant workers 'trapped' in Saudi


Thousands of ‘illegal’ Nepali migrant workers ‘trapped’ in Saudi


KAMAL RAJ SIGDEL, The Kathmandu Post, MARCH 7, 2011


Some 70,000 to 80,000 Nepali migrant workers may be “trapped” in the blistering heats of Saudi Arabia under critical working conditions, according to Nepal Embassy officials in Riyadh. The number accumulated over the years as the illegal migrants continued to wait for the Saudi government and employers’ permission to return home, with Nepali authority almost in the dark. A big chunk of them are waiting to return home for as long as five years. [Also read: Over 70 dead bodies of Nepali migrant workers rot in Saudi Arabia]


According to officials, the Saudi government is refusing to grant them “exit visas” because of their “illegal” status. Officials said though most of them entered the country legally as unskilled labourer, they were automatically rendered illegal when they fled their first employer for various reasons, including exploitation, torture and low-payment.


“We don’t have exact official data, but in our rough estimation, there could be around 70,000 to 80,000 unskilled Nepali migrant workers who have been willing to return home but are unable to do so due to the strict immigration law, which requires employer’s approval for an exit,” Charge d' Affaires of Nepali Embassy in Riyadh Paras Ghimire told the Post over phone. “Our efforts to issue them exit permit has gone in vain.”


According to Saudi Arabia's kafala system, migrant workers’ cannot leave the country without written permission of their employer. A recent study by US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has concluded that kafala system has “contributed to workers getting trapped in abusive conditions” and urged Saudi government to scrap the law.


The laws, according to HRW, has subjected thousands of migrant workers to employers’ abuses such as nonpayment of wages, forced confinement in the workplace, confiscation of passports, excessive work hours with little rest, physical and sexual abuse, and forced labor including trafficking. HRW and many other organizations’ urge for the Saudi government to scrap the kafala system has been continuously ignored.


In March, the King of Saudi Arabia announced to grant exit permit to all those illegal immigrants who arrived on visit or tourist visas, but this does not apply to the Nepali workers who have arrived here on working visa.


Asked whether the Nepal Embassy could help the trapped workers return home, the embassy officials said they can only issue travel documents to those to come it contact but that is not sufficient to get an exit permit.


The Nepali authorities virtually stand helpless in this case. “I don’t think we could convince the Saudi government singly. It may be possible if a delegation of all the representatives of labour supplying countries here made a joint request,” said Ghimire.


Statistics at the Nepal Embassy at Riyadh show that there are roughly 500,000 Nepalis unskilled laborers currently working in Saudi Arabia and around 20 percent of them are illegal. Foreign Affair ministry officials in Kathmandu said they don’t have enough information about the number of trapped Nepali workers and don’t have any specific efforts to address the problem.


Human rights defenders say the situation is the result of the government apathy towards migrant rights. OHCHR Nepal Chief Jyoti Sanghera said that it was a matter of concern that Nepal has not taken measures to protect migrant workers’ rights despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of its young women and men are migrant workers in Asia and the Gulf States, and contribute millions of dollars via remittances to keep the economy of Nepal afloat.


“It is important that a country like Nepal whose migrant workers constitute the backbone of its economy through their earnings, take all positive and necessary steps to protect the rights of Nepali migrant workers everywhere.”


She urged that Nepal should become a party to the UN International Convention on the Protection of all Migrant Workers, which could help Nepal secure the rights of its migrant workers. According to the Convention, it is the duty of both countries of origin and destination to protect the human rights of migrants and their families.

[Originally published at:]


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