Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law does not contain provisions for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country, but it severely restricted the movement of female citizens. While the guardianship system does not require a woman to have the permission of her male guardian (normally a father, husband, son, brother, grandfather, uncle, or other male relative) to move freely within the country, courts sometimes ruled that women should abide by a male guardian’s request to stay at home by “occasionally upholding a guardian’s right to obedience from his female dependents,” according to an HRW report.
Women’s rights activist Mariyam al-Otaiby was reportedly detained in April after she left the family house without her male guardian’s permission, and was held 104 days without trial until her release on July 30. Some human rights organizations characterized her release as constituting a legal precedent in the kingdom for freedom of movement without the presence of a male guardian.
On April 18, King Salman issued a royal decree ordering all government agencies to review their guardianship laws and to provide their understanding of the legal basis for withholding services to women. The stated goal was to avoid denying government services to women who do not present a male guardian’s consent except when law or regulations explicitly require it. At year’s end, the government’s review of its guardianship laws had not been completed.
Authorities respected the right of citizens to change residence or workplace, provided they held a national identification card (NIC). The law requires all male citizens who are 15 or older to possess a NIC. In 2012 the Ministry of Interior announced it would start issuing NICs to all female citizens at the age of 15, phasing in the requirement over a seven-year period. In September 2016 local media reported more than three million girls and women over the age of 15 still did not possess a NIC. The population during the year of girls and women who were 15 or older was approximately seven million, according to the General Authority for Statistics.
The government prohibited women from driving motor vehicles by refusing to issue licenses to them. In September, King Salman issued a decree ending this longstanding policy that will allow women to drive beginning in June 2018.
Foreign Travel: There are severe restrictions on foreign travel, including for women and members of minority groups. No one may leave the country without an exit visa and a passport. Females of any age, males younger than 21, and other dependents or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a male guardian’s consent to travel abroad. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, a male guardian must apply for and collect a passport for women and minors. A noncitizen wife needs permission from her husband to travel unless both partners sign a prenuptial agreement permitting the noncitizen wife to travel without the husband’s permission. If a wife’s guardian is deceased, a court may grant the permission. Government entities can ban the travel of citizens and noncitizens without trial, and male family members can “blacklist” women and minor children, prohibiting their travel.
In April, Dina Ali Lasloom was reportedly returned to Saudi Arabia against her will from the Philippines while in transit to Australia to claim political asylum in order to escape a forced marriage. On April 12, the Saudi Embassy in the Philippines issued a statement describing Lasloom’s return as a “family matter.” At year’s end, her whereabouts were unknown, according to HRW.
Employers or sponsors controlled the departure of foreign workers and residents from the country; employers or sponsors were responsible for processing residence permits and exit visas on their behalf. Sponsors frequently held their employees’ passports against the desires of the employees, despite a law specifically prohibiting this practice. Foreign workers typically provided sponsors with their residence permit before traveling in exchange for their passport to ensure the worker’s return to their employer after their travel.
The government continued to impose international travel bans for individuals deemed at risk of flight during ongoing legal proceedings and investigations, as well as for criminal sentences. The government reportedly confiscated passports on occasion for political reasons and revoked the rights of some citizens to travel, often without providing them notification or opportunity to contest the restriction. Most travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to corruption, state security concerns, labor, financial, and real estate disputes.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides that the “state will grant political asylum if public interest so dictates.” There are no regulations implementing this provision. The government permitted UNHCR-recognized refugees to stay in the country temporarily pending identification of a durable outcome, including third-country resettlement or voluntary repatriation. The government generally did not grant asylum or accept refugees for resettlement from third countries. Government policy is to refuse refugee status to persons in the country illegally, including those who have overstayed a pilgrimage visa. The government strongly encouraged persons without residency to leave, and it threatened or imposed deportation. Access to naturalization was difficult for refugees.
The government granted six-month visas to Syrian and Yemeni nationals, and a royal decree allowed pro forma extensions of these visas. There was a nondeportation policy for Syrians and Yemenis. The King Salman Center for Humanitarian Aid and Relief reported in September that there were more than 291,000 Syrian and 603,000 Yemeni nationals, considered visitors and not officially recognized refugees, living in Saudi Arabia.
The government did not recognize the right of Saudi citizens to petition for access to asylum or refugee status in third countries. In several cases the government prosecuted and penalized Saudi citizens who sought asylum in third countries, according to multiple sources (see section 1.e., Trial Procedures).
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers were generally unable to work legally, although Syrian and Yemeni nationals who possessed a temporary visa could obtain a visitor card (“za’ir”) from the Ministry of Interior, which reportedly allows these nationals to work. The renewable permits were valid for up to six months and tied to the validity period of their temporary visas; men between the ages of 18 and 60 were eligible to apply.
Access to Basic Services: The government reserves access to education, health care, public housing, courts and judicial procedures, legal services, and other social services to citizens only. A royal decree issued in 2012 permits all Syrians in Saudi Arabia free access to the educational system, and a separate decree issued in 2015 gives Yemenis in Saudi Arabia free access to schools. In 2015-16 the government enrolled and funded 141,406 Syrian students and 285,644 Yemeni students in local schools and provided college scholarships to 7,950 Syrians and 3,880 Yemenis. The UNHCR office in Riyadh provided a subsistence allowance covering basic services to a limited number of vulnerable families, based on a needs assessment. Authorities worked with UNHCR to provide medical treatment also following a needs assessment. Since 2015 the government provided free health care to 47,000 Yemenis and paid for treatment of more than 3,426 injured Yemenis located in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Sudan.
The country had a significant number of habitual residents who were legally stateless, but data on the stateless population were incomplete and scarce.
Citizenship is legally derived only from the father. Children born to an unmarried citizen mother who is not legally affiliated with the citizen father may be considered stateless, even if the father recognized the child as his, or if the government did not authorize the marriage of a citizen father and a noncitizen mother prior to birth of the children. The nationality laws do not allow Saudi women married to foreign nationals to pass their nationality to their children, except in certain circumstances such as fathers who are unknown, stateless, of unknown nationality, or do not establish filiation. Sons of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers may apply for citizenship once they turn 18 (if not already granted citizenship at birth under certain circumstances). Daughters can obtain citizenship only through marriage to a Saudi man. A child may lose legal identification and accompanying rights if authorities withdraw identification documents from a parent (possible when a naturalized parent denaturalizes voluntarily or loses citizenship through other acts). Since there is no codified personal status law, judges make decisions regarding family matters based on their own interpretations of Islamic law.
Foreign male spouses of female citizens are entitled to permanent residency in the country without needing a sponsor, and they receive free government education and medical benefits. These spouses are also included in the quota of Saudis employed in private companies under the “nitaqaat,” or labor quota system, which improves their employment prospects. Female citizens must also be between the ages of 30 and 55 in order to marry a non-Saudi man. Non-Saudi wives of Saudi men receive more rights if they have children resulting from their marriage with a Saudi man. Male citizens must be between the ages of 40 and 65 in order to marry a non-Saudi woman. The extent to which those strictures were enforced was unclear, and there was anecdotal evidence that they were not uniformly enforced. Children of Saudi women who are married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother.
UNHCR unofficially estimated there were 70,000 stateless persons in the country, almost all of whom were native-born residents known locally as “Bidoon” (an Arabic word that means “without” [citizenship]). Bidoon are persons whose ancestors failed to obtain nationality, such as descendants of nomadic tribes not counted among the native tribes during the reign of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz; descendants of foreign-born fathers who arrived before there were laws regulating citizenship; and rural migrants whose parents failed to register their births. As noncitizens, Bidoon are unable to obtain passports. The government sometimes denied them employment and educational opportunities, and their marginalized status made them among the poorest residents of the country. In recent years the Ministry of Education encouraged them to attend school. The government issues Bidoon five-year residency permits to facilitate their social integration in government-provided health-care and other services, putting them on similar footing with sponsored foreign workers. The General Directorate of Passports issued special identity cards to Bidoon similar to residency permits issued to foreigners in the country, but with features entitling their holders to additional government services similar to those available to citizens.
There were also some Baloch, West Africans, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma, but only a portion of these communities was stateless. Many Rohingya had expired passports that their home government refused to renew. UNHCR estimated there were between 250,000 and 500,000 Rohingya in the country. During the year some of these individuals benefited from a program to correct their residency status; the government issued approximately 200,000 four-year residency permits by year’s end. Only an estimated 2,000 individuals of Rohingya origin had Saudi citizenship. There also were between 300,000 and 400,000 Palestinian residents not registered as refugees.