Saudi Arabia

Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Report

SAUDI ARABIA: Tier 2 Watch List

Saudi Arabia is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and, to a lesser extent, forced prostitution. Men and women primarily from South and East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa voluntarily migrate to Saudi Arabia as domestic workers or low-skilled laborers; many of these workers subsequently face involuntary servitude. Non-payment of wages is the most common complaint from foreign workers in the Kingdom, while employers’ withholding of workers’ passports remains widespread. The foreign worker population is the most vulnerable to trafficking in Saudi Arabia, particularly female domestic workers due to their isolation inside private residences. The ILO estimated in 2013 that Saudi Arabia is one of the largest employers of domestic workers in the world, a sector with the highest average working hours. Some foreign nationals who have experienced indicators of trafficking have been placed on death row. Although many migrant workers sign contracts, some report work conditions substantially different from those described in the contract, while other workers never see a contract at all. Some migrant workers voluntarily enter into illegal arrangements and pay a Saudi national to sponsor their residence permit while they seek freelance work, thus becoming vulnerable to possible extortion by their sponsors. Due to Saudi Arabia’s requirement that foreign workers obtain an exit visa from their employers to legally leave the country, some are forced to work for months or years beyond their contract term because their employers will not grant them an exit permit. Some women, primarily from Asia and Africa, are believed to be forced into prostitution in Saudi Arabia. After running away from abusive employers, some female domestic workers are kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Children from South Asia, East Africa, and Yemen are subjected to forced labor as beggars and street vendors, facilitated by criminal gangs. A government study conducted in 2011 reported most beggars in Saudi Arabia are Yemenis between the ages of 16 and 25. Migrants from Yemen and the Horn of Africa enter Saudi Arabia illegally—sometimes with the help of smugglers—via the Yemeni border; some of them may be trafficking victims. Some Saudi nationals engage in sex tourism in various countries worldwide. The Saudi government did not report efforts to address child sex tourism by Saudi nationals abroad through any law enforcement efforts. Some Saudi men used legally contracted “temporary marriages” to sexually exploit young girls and women—including Syrian refugees—overseas.

The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government made some progress to prosecute offenders and protect trafficking victims. It reported increased efforts to prosecute and convict trafficking offenders; however, it did not proactively investigate and prosecute employers for potential labor trafficking crimes following their withholding of workers’ wages and passports, or seek punishment of any employers for passport withholding, which is also prohibited by law. This practice remained widespread in the country. The government distributed victim identification guidelines to officials, but authorities did not make systematic efforts to proactively identify trafficking victims among illegal foreign migrants, domestic workers who fled abusive employers, or women in prostitution. Furthermore, officials continued to arrest, detain, and sometimes charge migrants found to be illegally in the country, including individuals who may be unidentified trafficking victims. The government demonstrated progress in its efforts to provide protection services to domestic workers, particularly in its social welfare center in Riyadh; however, victims of sex trafficking and male trafficking victims remained unprotected and vulnerable to punishment. The government made progress in its efforts to prevent trafficking and demonstrated political will to do so.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SAUDI ARABIA:

Significantly increase efforts to prosecute, punish, and stringently sentence trafficking offenders, including abusive employers and those culpable of sex trafficking, under the 2009 anti-trafficking law; vigorously investigate employers who withhold workers’ passports and wages and restrict workers’ movement for potential trafficking crimes, and adequately punish these employers under the anti-trafficking law; significantly improve efforts to ensure victims are not punished for acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking, such as immigration violations, fleeing abusive employers, or engaging in prostitution; institute a formal victim identification mechanism to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, including illegal migrants, domestic workers, and persons in prostitution; expand full labor protections to domestic workers; ensure all victims of trafficking can seek assistance and protection services; reform the sponsorship system and ensure trafficking victims are able to pursue criminal cases against their employers in practice; and continue to train government officials on identifying cases of forced labor and sex trafficking, and expand anti-trafficking public awareness campaigns.

PROSECUTION

The government demonstrated some improved law enforcement efforts, but it neglected to investigate non-payment of wages and passport withholding as indicators of potential trafficking crimes. The 2009 Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons Act defines and prohibits all forms of human trafficking, but it is overly broad because it includes offenses, such as prostitution, which are not trafficking crimes, as defined under international law. The 2009 Act prescribes punishments of up to 15 years’ imprisonment and financial penalties. Both penalties may be increased under certain circumstances, including trafficking committed by an organized criminal group or a law enforcement officer or committed against a woman, child, or person with disabilities. These penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes. The Council of Ministers’ Decision 166 prohibits the practice of withholding workers’ passports as a separate, lesser offense; however, the government did not report efforts to enforce this decision despite the Ministry of Labor (MOL) publicly reiterating in March 2015 that such acts are in violation of labor law.

In a marked improvement from the previous reporting periods, the government collected and shared disaggregated anti-trafficking law enforcement data, which reported its investigation of 725 trafficking suspects from April to December 2014. In that same timeframe, it prosecuted 52 cases and convicted 68 offenders under the anti-trafficking law. Of those convicted, 23 were convicted of forced labor crimes, one for begging, and 44 for sexual exploitation. This was an increase from its law enforcement efforts in the previous reporting period when it reportedly prosecuted 38 suspected trafficking cases and convicted 43 offenders from January to December 2013. While the Labor Dispute Court settled more than 3,500 cases between May and December 2014, it is unclear how many of these cases were investigated for potential trafficking crimes. In June 2014, the government investigated the claims of two Indonesian domestic workers who had not been paid by their employers for more than six years. The government detained the employers until they paid the workers their due salaries. In August 2014, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) voiced support for transferring the MOL Labor Dispute Settlement Court under the authority of the MOJ to improve efforts to identify potential trafficking crimes among labor dispute cases and ensure their referral for criminal prosecution; this transfer was pending at the end of the reporting period. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses. In early 2015, the government conducted anti-trafficking trainings for 11 police officials and hosted a pan-Arab anti-trafficking conference for 30 participants.

PROTECTION

The government demonstrated some progress to identify victims and improve protection services, but authorities continued to punish victims for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking. From April to December 2014, the government identified and referred to protection services 57 trafficking victims, 20 of whom were victims of forced labor, two of begging, and 35 of sexual exploitation; this demonstrated an increase from the previous reporting period when the government identified 36 victims from January to December 2013. In July 2014, the government distributed victim identification criteria and reportedly provided training on implementation of the criteria to police and Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) officials. However, the government did not systematically utilize these measures to proactively identify victims among vulnerable populations. Thus, government officials continued to arrest, detain, deport, and sometimes prosecute trafficking victims, particularly illegal foreign workers and domestic workers who fled their employers. In 2014, the government arrested more than 8,000 beggars—of which 70 percent were foreign—and failed to identify any victims among this group. Women arrested for prostitution offenses—some of whom may be unidentified victims of trafficking—faced prosecution and, if convicted, imprisonment or corporal punishment; however, in practice, foreigners were deported, sometimes after being held in detention. In a sign of progress, in November 2014, the government announced workers who fled their employers would not be jailed or forced to return to their employers to obtain an exit visa, provided the workers cooperated with their respective embassies within a 72-hour period and had no criminal charges or outstanding fines against them. Though labor-sending country diplomats reported a substantial number of workers benefited from this policy, it is unknown if any trafficking victims were identified or referred to protection services through the policy.

The government continued to operate shelters for children, as well as 15 welfare centers for female domestic workers. These facilities provided shelter and psycho-social, health, and educational services to trafficking victims, though it was unclear if any identified victims were referred to these facilities. The government improved services in the welfare center in Riyadh in 2014; for example, unlike in previous reporting periods, the government reported male shelter staff were not allowed in the residents’ living quarters, and labor source-country diplomatic officials were given regular access to their nationals residing in the center. The shelter operated as a one-stop shop, providing residents with legal assistance, immigration and passport services, translation, and rehabilitative care. It was equipped with seven female social workers, as well as trained psychologists and other medical professionals. The government did not provide specialized shelters for victims of sex trafficking or male trafficking victims. Due to a lack of available and adequate protection services for all trafficking victims, some victims in smaller cities were kept in jails until their cases were resolved. Many victims continued to seek refuge at their embassies; source country diplomatic missions continued to report complaints by their citizens of unpaid wages, physical or sexual abuse, and poor working conditions.

In November 2014, the Council of Ministers approved a child protection law to protect those under age 18 years from various crimes, including exploitation of children in criminal or sexual acts, which may include trafficking crimes. The government reportedly encouraged victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenders, yet few victims successfully pursued criminal cases against abusive employers due to lengthy delays in the immigration and justice system. Trafficking victims were reportedly given the option to remain in the country—either in protective custody or working for a new employer—during judicial proceedings, or they could request an immediate exit visa; these benefits were not linked to the successful outcome of a prosecution of their trafficker.

PREVENTION

The government made some progress in preventing trafficking. Government officials, as well as high-level religious leaders, demonstrated increased political will to combat trafficking and publicly acknowledged and condemned the problem of trafficking—specifically forced labor—in the country. The government allocated an increased amount of resources for the inter-agency anti-trafficking working group, which continued to actively coordinate efforts among ministries. For another year, the government updated its national anti-trafficking action plan; as part of this plan, the government identified areas of cooperation with two international organizations to strengthen anti-trafficking efforts. Throughout 2014, the government coordinated with five labor-sending country representatives to provide information on workers’ rights at airports in the sending countries. In June 2014, the government completed a domestic worker labor agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka, which aimed to protect workers’ wages and contracts. In May 2014, the MOL announced private employers who do not pay their domestic workers would be subjected to financial penalties. The government continued implementation of the Wage Protection System (WPS), which required employers to pay foreign workers through bank transfers, thereby allowing the MOL to ensure workers were paid appropriately. The MOL suspended 82 companies that did not adhere to the WPS. In October 2014, the government formally joined the International Association of Labor Inspection and conducted extensive labor inspections of recruitment agencies throughout the reporting period. The MOL employed nearly 1,000 labor inspectors and reported more than 62,000 labor violations and 9,500 cases in which foreign migrants were working for employers without legal sponsorship. The MOL imposed penalties on 2,200 cases where companies violated the government’s mid-day work ban during the summer months. Government-controlled media implemented awareness campaigns addressing trafficking, while the MOL continued to distribute a guidebook to all migrant workers entering the country in some source country languages, which contained a telephone number for workers to report abuse. The government continued to improve an online portal providing domestic workers and employers with information about their legal rights. The police maintained a 24-hour anti-trafficking hotline with operators who spoke Arabic and English, and during 2014, the MOL established a hotline to receive labor dispute complaints with operators that spoke a variety of migrant worker languages; it was unclear if any trafficking victims were identified through these hotlines. The government took actions to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts and forced labor, but it did not report efforts to address child sex tourism by Saudi nationals abroad through any law enforcement efforts. Saudi law does not have extraterritorial coverage to prosecute Saudi nationals who commit sex tourism crimes outside of Saudi Arabia. The government provided anti-trafficking training or guidance for its diplomatic personnel.