Saudi Arabia

Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Tier 2 Watch List

SAUDI ARABIA: Tier 2 Watch List

The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated significant efforts by identifying and referring more victims to protective services, enhancing its regulatory enforcement of labor protections for expatriates, launching the second phase of the Wage Protection System (WPS) to better safeguard domestic workers’ contracts, and expanding a pilot program to provide free phone cards and informational materials to all domestic workers and laborers arriving in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. The government-funded and commenced implementation of its four-year national action plan and continued to improve shelter services through a privatization program. It also prosecuted four Saudi nationals for passport retention. However, the government did not demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. It continued to arrest and/or deport undocumented migrant workers, some of whom were potentially unidentified trafficking victims. The government prosecuted and convicted fewer traffickers and did not explicitly report the penalties imposed or other sentencing details it administered. Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan, that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Saudi Arabia was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore Saudi Arabia remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the fourth consecutive year.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SAUDI ARABIA

Strengthen efforts to prosecute, convict, and stringently sentence trafficking offenders, including abusive employers, under the anti-trafficking law; reform the sponsorship system and ensure trafficking victims are able to pursue criminal cases against their employers in practice; vigorously investigate for potential trafficking crimes employers who withhold workers’ passports and wages and restrict workers’ movement, and adequately punish these employers under the anti-trafficking law; continue to improve efforts to ensure victims among vulnerable populations, including domestic workers, illegal foreign migrants, male victims, and persons in prostitution, are not punished for acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking to include proactive screening for trafficking indicators when arresting and before deporting individuals among vulnerable populations; continue to expand the formal victim identification mechanism to proactively identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations; continue to train government officials on identifying cases of sex trafficking; and, expand country-wide public awareness campaigns on all forms of trafficking.

PROSECUTION

The government increased its law enforcement efforts but demonstrated an uneven ability to capture and share data on trafficking-related cases. The 2009 anti-trafficking law criminalized labor and sex trafficking and prescribed punishments of up to 15 years imprisonment and financial penalties of up to 1 million Saudi Arabian riyal (SAR) ($266,670), which were increased under aggravating circumstances, including trafficking committed by an organized criminal group or against a woman, child, or person with disabilities. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The Council of Ministers’ Decision 166 prohibited withholding workers’ passports as a lesser criminal offense punishable by fines.

During the reporting period, the government reported investigating and prosecuting 177 trafficking cases, as compared to 264 in 2016. Of these, it convicted 20 traffickers under the anti-trafficking law and, due to insufficient information to prosecute as trafficking crimes, acquitted 31 defendants; 133 cases remained pending in the court system at the close of the reporting period. In 2016, the government achieved 254 prosecutions and convictions; however, this higher number was due to an amalgamation of trafficking and trafficking-related crimes, in addition to multiple laws under which they were criminally pursued. The 2017 convictions were for forced and bonded labor, involuntary domestic servitude, and forced begging. The government did not explicitly report the specific penalties imposed on the convicted traffickers or how many received prison sentences, although it reportedly handed down severe sentences to each convicted trafficker to include lengthy imprisonment, fines, and confiscation of gains from the trafficking crimes. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking offenses. In December 2017, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) sponsored a train-the-trainer workshop provided by an international organization on general trafficking issues for 171 officials, including 42 judges and representatives of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD), border guard and police personnel, the interior ministry, recruitment companies, and foreign embassies. The HRC also developed and produced multiple anti-trafficking public awareness campaigns that also reached an unknown number of government officials.

PROTECTION

The government maintained efforts to protect trafficking victims and reported details on its protection efforts for the first time. The government widely disseminated victim identification and referral criteria to relevant official stakeholders and provided regular training on their implementation. During the reporting period, officials identified and referred to government-run shelters 121 trafficking victims—of which 20 were victims of forced labor—out of 164 individuals proactively identified as potential victims; during the previous year, it did not provide aggregate information on victims identified, but reported 264 potential victims discovered over the course of investigations. The government allocated—and reported for the first time—10 million SAR ($2.7 million) to the MOLSD, which operated shelters across the country for vulnerable populations and abuse victims, some of whom were likely trafficking victims. These include shelters for child beggars in Mecca, Jeddah, Dammam, Medina, Qassim, and Abha, in addition to welfare centers for female domestic workers in at least ten locations throughout the Kingdom and for male domestic workers in Riyadh. Each shelter provided accommodation, social services, health care, psychological counseling, education, and legal assistance, and all 121 government-identified victims received these services from the government during the reporting period; the government did not report what types of protection services, if any, it provided to identified victims during the previous reporting period. Diplomats from labor-sending countries had regular access to their nationals residing in government-run shelters and reported conditions and quality of services in the shelters varied slightly across the Kingdom, but were overall satisfactory and safe. Some embassies and consulates—including those of the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka—also operated shelters for their respective nationals. Various diplomatic missions reported complaints by their citizens of unpaid wages, passport retention, physical or sexual abuse, or substandard working conditions. The Saudi Arabian government and foreign missions reported the large majority of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia did not experience problems with their employers. During the reporting period, officials extended a 90-day amnesty program, which commenced in March 2017, for five additional months for undocumented migrant workers, those who worked for an unofficial sponsor, and those who were declared absconders by employers, to depart the Kingdom without punishment by granting emergency exit certificates. The amnesty program also permitted undocumented expatriates to reverse their illegal status, fully exempt from any associated consequences. After the expiration of the amnesty period, the government detained approximately 250,000 people reportedly in violation of its residency laws and deported some 50,000, the majority of whom were of Ethiopian descent, according to press reports. There were no reports of confirmed trafficking victims being punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of their being subjected to trafficking; however, despite efforts to improve screening there were claims by human rights organizations that the government did not always screen all deportees for potential trafficking victimization and police frequently arrested and/or deported undocumented migrant workers, some of whom experienced abuses indicative of forced labor and were potentially unidentified trafficking victims.

The government extended all identified trafficking victims the option of remaining in the country—either in a shelter or via transfer to a new employer—during judicial proceedings or an immediate exit visa; these benefits did not require a successful prosecution or cooperation with law enforcement personnel. Victims who wanted to repatriate immediately could assign a power-of-attorney and pursue their legal case from abroad. During the reporting period, the anti-trafficking secretariat worked with interior ministry officials to extend the residency permits—without employers’ consent—of an unknown number of identified trafficking victims on an ad hoc basis. The government reportedly encouraged victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenders, and the law entitled trafficking victims to legal assistance, security protection, translation services, and the right to immediate repatriation or continued residence in-country until resolution of the case, in addition to medical and psychological care, shelter, and recovery; it did not report how many victims accessed these provisions during the reporting year. The government reportedly provided protection to witnesses involved in trafficking cases, but the government did not report any cases in 2017. Officials permitted victims to obtain restitution from the government and file civil suits against trafficking offenders; however, such restitution generally occurred outside of civil court proceedings, and the government typically and informally reimbursed workers for back wages and/or assisted in their repatriation.

PREVENTION

The government increased its efforts to prevent trafficking. The Saudi Arabian government reiterated its commitment to combat human trafficking through initiatives undertaken as part of the Vision 2030 socioeconomic reform program. The government allocated a budget of 36 million SAR ($9.6 million) for its interagency anti-trafficking secretariat, which commenced implementation of its 2017-2020 national action plan to combat trafficking that focused on monitoring, prevention, building government capacity, inter-ministerial coordination, effective law enforcement, and provision of protective services for victims. The government-controlled media frequently aired discussions of forced labor, visa scams, forced begging, and other trafficking-related topics throughout the reporting period to raise awareness among the Saudi public. Officials operated a 24-hour call center that received calls in nine major labor-sending country languages including Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Tagalog, Indonesian, Malay, and Amharic, in addition to Arabic and English. During the reporting period, the call center received approximately 1.3 million general inquiries and requests, labor disputes, employment complaints, and tips, which helped authorities identify four trafficking cases. MOLSD continued to receive workplace-related grievances via its website, a smartphone application, and social media. Expanding on a 2016 pilot program that provided pre-paid SIM cards to domestic workers and laborers arriving at Riyadh’s international airport, the government launched this initiative in Jeddah and Dammam in 2018 to educate workers on their rights through complementary calls and text messages to the call center and local embassies.

In February 2018, the government implemented a new phase of the WPS, requiring employers to pay foreign workers by electronic transfer via a Saudi bank, thereby permitting the MOLSD to track disbursements. This requirement applied to all employees who worked for companies with 11 or more employees and covered the vast majority of expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia. In addition, it mandated individual employers of domestic labor to issue prepaid payroll or salary cards as soon as the domestic worker arrived in the Kingdom to ensure a legal working relationship between employer and employee and safeguard employees’ prescribed wages. During the reporting period, the WPS covered a total of 6.4 million workers; more than 95 percent of Saudi companies were compliant with the system requirements, and the five percent in noncompliance were penalized, including an unknown number whose services the government suspended, either temporarily or permanently. The government made efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex and forced labor. MOLSD conducted investigations of 17 cases of passport retention and imposed upon each defendant 1,000 SAR ($270) per passport withheld without consent; during the previous reporting period the government did not report investigating any such crimes that contained trafficking indicators. In addition, the prosecutor general investigated four Saudi business owners who retained their workers’ passports without their employees’ consent and referred all four to the judiciary; authorities fined each Saudi employer 2,000 SAR ($530) in accordance with the ministerial decree. The government did not report investigating or referring for criminal prosecution any passport retention crimes during the previous reporting period. MOLSD continued to employ nearly 1,000 labor inspectors, and during the reporting period, it ordered the closure of 14 recruitment offices and the suspension of operations of 40 others that contravened Saudi Arabia’s labor laws. There were anecdotal accounts of employers prosecuted for these violations. Additionally, MOLSD imposed fines on 227 work places violating the government’s mid-day work ban during the summer months. During the reporting period, the government concluded bilateral labor agreements with the governments of Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Philippines, which aimed to protect workers’ contracts with their employers. There were no reported cases of Saudis prosecuted or convicted for sex tourism outside the Kingdom. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.

TRAFFICKING PROFILE

As reported over the past five years, 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 Southeast Asia and Africa—voluntarily migrate to Saudi Arabia to work in a variety of sectors, including construction and domestic service, and some are low-skilled laborers; many of these workers are vulnerable to forced labor. Some migrants are illegally recruited to work in Saudi Arabia and subsequently forced into domestic servitude and debt bondage. The Kingdom’s migrant laborer population continued to be the largest group at risk of human trafficking, particularly female domestic workers due to their isolation inside private residences and subjection to severe employer abuse. According to a regional news source, there are approximately 11 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, and the largest populations during the reporting period hailed from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Syria, Yemen, Bangladesh, the Palestinian Territories, Sudan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. In previous years, some foreign citizens who have experienced indicators of trafficking were prosecuted for crimes and sentenced to death. Non-payment of wages is the prominent complaint from foreign workers in the Kingdom, while employers withholding workers’ passports remains a significant problem. Trafficking perpetrators include businesses of all sizes, private families, recruitment companies in both Saudi Arabia and labor-sending countries, gangs, and organized criminal elements.

Due to Saudi Arabia’s requirement under its de facto sponsorship—kafala—system that foreign workers obtain permission from their employers for an exit visa to be able to legally depart the country, some are forced to work well beyond their contract term because their employers do not grant such permission. Although most migrant workers sign contracts delineating their rights, some report work conditions substantially different from those previously prescribed, while others never see work contracts at all, rendering them vulnerable to forced labor and debt bondage. Additionally, some migrant workers voluntarily enter into illegal arrangements where they seek freelance work while concurrently paying a Saudi national to sponsor their initial residency permit, thereby becoming vulnerable to extortion by their sponsors. Some migrants from Yemen and the Horn of Africa who enter Saudi Arabia illegally—involuntarily or through smuggling—via the Yemeni border may be trafficking victims. Previous reports allege some Saudi citizens engaged in sex tourism abroad, where they engaged in temporary or seasonal marriages, which included payment for short-term sexual access to children and others who the purchaser then abandons.