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Asian migrants stranded in Saudi Arabia

Srinivas MazumdaruAugust 3, 2016

After losing their jobs, thousands of workers from nations like India, Pakistan and the Philippines are stuck in Saudi Arabia. With their citizens at risk of starving, governments are stepping forward with help.

Gastarbeiter in Riad, Saudi-Arabien
Image: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Hoping to earn more money and dreaming of a better life, thousands of people from South and Southeast Asia migrate to Saudi Arabia and other Middle East nations every year. Many of them are employed in the region's construction sector, building the glitzy skyscrapers and other architectural landmarks that dot the region's landscape.

But the recent plunge in global oil prices has hurt the region's economies, particularly that of Saudi Arabia, which has accumulated a massive budget deficit while its net foreign assets have dropped. This has prompted the Saudi government to reconsider its spending and infrastructure plans - a decision that has had a negative impact on the fortunes of construction companies.

This, in turn, has led to many migrant construction workers losing their jobs. Many of them have no money to return to their home countries and are left to starve, as recent reports about the desperate situation faced by jobless Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos have revealed.

Home countries get involved

In response to the reports, their native governments have stepped forward with aid and have initiated efforts to repatriate their citizens. India, for instance, said its consulate in the Red Sea city of Jeddah has set up camps to deliver food aid to up to 10,000 workers. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has pledged that "no Indian worker rendered unemployed in Saudi Arabia will go without food."

Furthermore, the deputy foreign minister, V.K. Singh, arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, August 3, to meet with officials there and arrange for the workers' return. It's unclear though how the repatriation will be arranged, as Saudi law requires an employee to have a no-objection certificate from their employer to leave the country.

The Philippine government has been providing financial assistance to its nationals stuck in the kingdom without pay. Manila is reportedly offering one-off grants to workers who are either still in the country or have been repatriated to the Philippines without receiving their pay or end-of-service benefits. Last month it also prohibited certain Saudi Arabian firms from hiring its citizens.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has directed the country's embassy officials in Riyadh to assist Pakistani workers suffering from financial distress due to the nonpayment of wages.

Enticing and exploitative

Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries host millions of migrant workers, who are employed in an array of sectors ranging from construction to domestic help. About three million Indians are living in Saudi Arabia, in addition to 1.5 million Pakistanis and one million Filipinos.

These countries rely heavily on the remittances, amounting to billions of dollars, sent back home by the migrant laborers. In India's case, the total amount of remittances from Gulf countries in 2015-16 stood at about $35.9 billion, with about 28 percent coming from Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, stories of abuse and exploitation of migrant laborers are not uncommon, sometimes beginning even before their arrival in the Persian Gulf. Many of the workers, who usually come from impoverished families, sell their limited assets and borrow money to pay the high recruitment fees charged by agents - often in the range of $3,000 to $10,000, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM).

They are also lured with false promises by some recruitment agencies seeking to maximize profits.

Furthermore, the risk of exploitation is increased by the "kafala" (sponsorship) system that is in place across the region. It restricts most migrant workers from changing jobs and even prohibits them from leaving the country without their employer's permission.

However, after the issue of stranded laborers garnered widespread attention, Saudi Arabia has promised "urgent" action to resolve the workers' plight. Labour Minister Mufarrej al-Haqbani issued orders to allow the Indian workers "to immediately transfer their kafala and renew their residencies," the AFP news agency cited the Saudi Arabian daily Okaz as reporting on Wednesday.