Gulf Business News
Saturday, March 30, 2013
Many illegal immigrants have now lived in the Kingdom for decades, prompting government officials to speak of a "humanitarian crisis"
Down a narrow alleyway deep in the Jeddah slum of Karantina, three
women from Sudan have set up stalls under colourful parasols, selling
peanuts, hibiscus petals, dried pulses, baskets, frankincense,
calabashes and sandalwood.
They laugh and gossip in the sunshine, swathed in bright printed
cloth, while a scrawny black cat picks its way between piles of rubbish.
But when approached by a stranger, they are cautious.
Jeddah has attracted outsiders for centuries, being the main port of
arrival for Muslims making the haj pilgrimage to Mecca. It is this
history that gives Karantina its name: older residents can remember when
it was “quarantine” for pilgrims.
But the people who now live in this slum in the south of Saudi
Arabia’s second biggest city were drawn not only by religious devotion
but also the top oil exporter’s wealth. They live in a legal limbo,
sometimes for generations.
“This is the forgotten area,” said a bearded Sudanese man in his 40s.
“Here are many illegal immigrants who don’t have official papers.
Government supervision is scarce.”
Saudi Arabia’s hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are not
counted among the millions of expatriates who reside legally in the Arab
kingdom, working as everything from maids to finance executives.
Instead they live on the margins, ineligible for government services
and outside of the law, but often unofficially tolerated because of the
expense and administrative obstacles in the way of expelling them.
In recent months, however, their status has caught the attention of
Saudi media, who have been calling them “infiltrators” and warning
readers of their supposed links to crime, disease and militancy.
“The infiltrators will carry with them all their social ills
including security threats, criminal behaviour and ethical issues,”
wrote commentator Hamoud Abu Talib in an opinion piece in Okaz daily
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Mansour al-Turki, said the
media has exaggerated the number of crimes committed by illegal
immigrants and added that Saudi citizens themselves contributed to the
problem by using them for cheap labour.
Many illegal immigrants have now lived in Saudi Arabia for decades,
having children and grandchildren who now live without nationality or
residence papers, and prompting government officials to speak of a
Some risked a perilous journey through volatile Somalia and Yemen,
others overstayed work visas or came to perform the annual haj and never
In 2008 Saudi officials told American diplomats that around 10 per
cent of pilgrims overstayed their visas each year, a U.S. embassy cable
released by WikiLeaks revealed. Last year more than two million people
came on haj from overseas.
Last week local media reported police in Asir Province bordering
Yemen as saying 1,470 illegal immigrants had been arrested in just two
“Dealing with these problems is not easy once they’re in the country …
Sometimes you can’t prove their nationality,” Turki told Reuters. “You
cannot send them back to Yemen. They will not take them.”
Turki was not able to estimate the number of illegal immigrants in the country.