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Wed. October 17, 2018
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The Peril of Ethiopian Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia: A Life of Absolute Defenseless and Destitute
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Without wrapping up the mourning of Lampedusa Boat Tragedy that very recently claimed the lives of more than 360 immigrants most of whom are from Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia on the Italian seaboard, another incident of inhuman and degrading act of beatings, killings, and raping is being inflicted against Ethiopian immigrants in Saudi Arabia since last week. This time, the victims are chased and hunted down by Saudi police and vigilantes on a pretentious account of violating immigration rules. Referring to the situation as “field security campaign", on November 4, the Ministry of Interior MoI of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia KSA made an official announcement “assigning the Public Security, with all affiliates, to arrest the “illegal” expatriates and hand them to the relevant authorities in the general directorate of prisons. According to the government website, the campaign which will take place in all cities, provinces, villages and rural towns of the Kingdom is carried out in a “firm” and “continuous” method of implementation as stated by Al-Turki, the Spokesperson of MoI. The Kingdom claims to target “illegal expatriates” and “over stayers with visas and also aims to arrest whoever employs any violator and who provides residence or transportation for the violators or hides them.” The government created a task force of 1,200 officials Public Security authorities and affiliates, Ministry of Labor officials, and vigilante who started raking-through shops, construction sites, restaurants and businesses in search of foreign workers. It is reported that in the first couple of days of the crackdown, approximately a total of 23,000 Ethiopian workers are reportedly arrested, some brutally beaten and inhumanely treated. And at least three Ethiopians were reportedly killed. With all due respect to the Kingdom’s domestic margin of appreciation to implement the necessary immigration policy, however, it is superfluously remorseless and unacceptable to chase and beat a fellow human being to death. In a country with immigrant workers making up 1/3 of the total population, one shouldn’t be surprised if the immigrants are used by the government as the scapegoat for all domestic ills. Whatsoever, the current crackdown by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Ethiopians migrant workers calls for a thorough scrutiny of the country’s immigration and labor system. We will see below the regulation of foreign labor and the ensuing immigration issues in Saudi Arabia, and then point out some kinds of redressing mechanisms and protection enhancement for the victims. Saudi Arabia’s Failed System of Labor Regulation vis-a-vis Foreign Workers Many of the migrants targeted in the crackdown entered the country legally nonetheless, owing to the current failure in the system of the labor regulation of the country, they are practically forced to be categorized and pigeon-holed into the domain of “illegal” undocumented workers. Most foreign workers especially domestic workers which constitute the majority are excluded from protections that the regime of labor law of the Kingdom offers (article 7(2) of Saudi Arabia LABOR LAW Royal Decree No. M/5123 Sha'ban 1426 / 27 Sep. 2005). Furthermore, the labor and immigration policy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that rely on “sponsor” or “kafala“ (where a worker's visa and legal status is tied only to ONE EMPLOYER-Part III, Article 32-41 of the Saudi Arabia LABOR LAW Royal Decree No. M/5123 Sha'ban 1426 / 27 Sep. 2005) created an intense and absolute inequality between employers and workers and impose tight restrictions on migrant workers' rights. Under this system, most migrant workers arrive in Saudi Arabia on a two-year contracts in which their visas are tied to their employer, or sponsor. The sponsor bears responsibility for the worker's recruitment fees, completion of medical exams, and possession of an iqama, or national identity card. The worker must obtain the sponsor's consent to transfer employment or to leave the country (to get an exit visa). This gives the employer an absolute amount of power over the worker's ability to change jobs or to return to a country of origin. As a result, some abusive employers exploit this botched system and force domestic workers to continue working against their will and forbid them from returning to their countries of origin. As part of finding solution and escaping this type of abusive and cruel employer/sponsor, therefore, the foreign workers sometimes end up working for someone other than their sponsor. Ultimately, this setting practically ends the workers up in a state of “out-of-status” or “illegal” or “undocumented” workers. In light of this challenge, during the past few months the time before the start of (the current “crackdown” when the kingdom declared as a grace period for the immigrants) there was no realistic way for the majority of migrants to pursue any of the gimmicky propositions by the officials to correct or fix the immigration documents. That means, the workers couldn’t correct the visa nor get an exit visa to leave the country because of the practical hindrances and impediments continuously posed by the foreign labor regulation system. Against this backdrop, one can tell that it is shockingly pretentious for the government of Saudi Arabia to pompously label the foreign workers as illegal beings. Sometimes, these workers are equated with/referred to as “runaways” and find themselves in vacuum of helplessness and defenselessness. The very act of running way from abusive employer is considered illegal making them stranded in the country without any judicial remedy for the abuse and no possibility to get an exit visa to leave the country. Redressing the Situation: “Righting the Wrong” Foreign workers in the Middle East countries are the most vulnerable group of people. There is a track record of horrendous acts and gross violation of fundamental rights inflicted against these workers over the last decade. The current crackdown is seemingly a culmination of that. Unfortunately, the home government (Ethiopian governments) rarely thinks of taking on a “discretionary” initiative to espouse the claim of their citizens residing abroad in order to extend some sort of diplomatic protection which might in some regard help to plant seeds of hope for the victims and their families. There has never been a case over the last few years where the home government in Addis Ababa/Finfinne showed a degree of sympathy. The self-proclaiming political-God-Father-Party of Ethiopia may need to develop a gut to deploy all diplomatic mechanisms and look for political leverage as part of searching for a redress for the victims. It is about time to act beyond the rhetoric. Besides actively and continuously providing consular assistance, the government has to look for justice on behalf of the victims by espousing their case. There is no desperate time and case than this where Ethiopian government has to employ the executive discretion to extend the diplomatic protection in all of its fullest sense. Damages sustained by all victims should be assessed and a commensurable relief must be sought by Ethiopian government before appropriate international judicial venue or arbitral tribunal As long-term solution as it may sound and as a layout for nurturing the culture and tradition of respecting human rights and dignity of foreign workers in that part of the world, the Kingdome of Saudi Arabia has to mitigate the allergy of acceding to the relevant international human rights treaties. Both Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia have not ratified International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families that was in force since 1 October 2005. The Convention is a comprehensive international treaty focusing on the protection of migrant workers’ rights and emphasizes the link between migration and human rights. It opens up a firm episode of determining the rights of migrant workers and ensuring that those rights are protected and respected. Accession to this instrument had long been overdue for both Saudi and Ethiopia. Not to mention that both states are still duty bound under other generic legal instruments like the ICCPR. Henok G. Gabisa is Visiting International Law Fellow, Washington & Lee University School of Law, Lexington, Virginia

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