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 during the reporting period by adopting a written national anti-trafficking action plan for 2017-2020, and substantially increasing the budget for the permanent committee on combating trafficking in persons. The government convicted an increased number of traffickers compared to the previous reporting period, and it continued efforts to prevent trafficking. The government also continued to operate an anti-trafficking hotline, opened an improved “guest house” for female domestic workers to replace the previous facility in Riyadh, and conducted labor inspections across the country. However, the government did not demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. Although the government identified at least 264 victims during the course of investigations in 2016, a decrease from the previous reporting period, capturing victim identification data continued to be a challenge for the government. While the government continued to operate shelters for some vulnerable populations, its efforts to proactively identify and protect victims among illegal foreign migrants, female and male domestic workers, and women in prostitution remained uneven. 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 the Tier 2 Watch List for a third consecutive year.

Continue efforts to prosecute, convict, punish, 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; significantly 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; ensure victims of all forms of trafficking can seek assistance and protection services; implement an expanded formal victim identification mechanism to proactively identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations; amend the law to provide extraterritorial authority to prosecute Saudi citizens engaged in sex tourism abroad; train government officials on identifying cases of sex trafficking; investigate, prosecute, and convict those who purchase commercial sex from children; and conduct country-wide public awareness campaigns on all forms of trafficking.

The government maintained its law enforcement efforts. The 2009 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law establishes a system for combating human trafficking by defining and criminalizing all forms of human trafficking. The act prescribes punishments of up to 15 years imprisonment and financial penalties of up to one million Saudi Arabian riyal (SAR) ($266,670), which may be increased under certain circumstances, including trafficking committed by an organized criminal group or against a woman, child, or person with disabilities. These penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The Council of Ministers’ Decision 166, adopted in 2000, prohibits withholding workers’ passports as a separate, lesser offense.

During the reporting period, the government reported investigating through the bureau of investigations and public prosecution 264 human trafficking cases in 2016, which involved forced labor, practices “similar to slavery,” sexual exploitation, and forced begging. Of these, it convicted 254 defendants under the anti-trafficking law, compared to 243 prosecutions and convictions in the previous reporting period. The government did not report the penalties imposed on the convicted traffickers or how many received prison sentences. The government did not report investigating potential trafficking crimes involving employers or recruiters withholding foreign workers’ wages or passports; however, anecdotal evidence suggested the government investigated and prosecuted allegations of such crimes as labor violations. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses. Because Saudi jurisprudence limits the jurisdiction of sharia law to Saudi Arabian territory, authorities did not investigate, prosecute, or convict Saudi nationals for crimes of commercial sex acts committed abroad, or report cooperating with law enforcement officials in countries, where alleged sexual exploitation occurred in 2016. The public security administration conducted several anti-trafficking trainings for officials in 2016.

The government maintained its protection efforts, but implementation of victim identification and protection measures remained uneven; some unidentified victims may have remained vulnerable to punishment for unlawful acts committed, as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking. The government continued to distribute victim identification criteria to officials and provided training on their implementation. Although the government did not provide aggregate information on victims identified during the reporting period, it identified at least 264 victims during the course of investigations. In comparison, the government identified 658 trafficking victims in 2015. The government reported challenges capturing aggregate-level victim identification data. Government officials continued to arrest, deport, imprison, and penalize some domestic workers who fled their employers and undocumented foreign workers, some of whom could be potential trafficking victims. In mid-2016, the media reported a Senegalese domestic worker faced the death penalty for allegedly killing her employer in self-defense; prior to the incident, the woman complained to her family of abuse and little rest, indicators of forced labor. Authorities reportedly did not provide the woman with legal assistance, as required by law, and there was no evidence that the government took into consideration the possible element of forced labor in this case, or recognized the worker as a potential trafficking victim. In January 2017, the media reported the government arrested and sentenced an unknown number of migrant construction workers to four months imprisonment and flogging for protesting about not receiving their wages from their employer; there was no evidence the government took into consideration that the workers’ withheld wages could be an element of forced labor in this case. The government did not provide legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims of trafficking to countries where they might face retribution or hardship.

The government provided protection services to domestic workers and child beggars, but it did not provide specialized shelters for victims of other forms of forced labor or sex trafficking. The government did not report what types of protection services—if any—it provided to the 264 victims identified in 2016. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) continued to operate shelters for child beggars, some of whom may have been trafficking victims, as well as 10 welfare centers for female domestic workers, some of whom may have been trafficking victims. The government continued to operate a welfare center for male domestic workers, but it did not report if any male trafficking victims received assistance at this facility during the reporting period. These centers generally provided shelter and psycho-social, health, and educational services; however, the condition and quality of victim care services varied across the Kingdom. The welfare center in Riyadh—which has a capacity of 230—operated as a full-service facility for female domestic workers, providing residents with legal assistance, immigration and passport services, translation, and rehabilitative care by seven female social workers, as well as trained psychologists and other medical professionals. The center had a separate living area for trafficking victims, but it did not report how many victims received assistance at the center during the reporting period. Labor source-country diplomatic officials had regular access to their nationals residing in this center. Many victims continued to seek refuge at their embassies; source-country diplomatic missions continued to report complaints by their citizens of unpaid wages, withholding of passports, physical or sexual abuse, and poor working conditions.

Although the government reportedly encouraged victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenders, there were few known and public cases of victims successfully pursuing criminal cases against abusive employers, in part due to lengthy delays in the immigration and justice system. During judicial proceedings, trafficking victims reportedly had the option to remain in the country—predominately in welfare centers or working for a new employer—or they could request an immediate exit visa; however, the government did not report if any victims received these benefits during the reporting period. The law entitles identified trafficking victims to legal assistance, translation services, and immediate repatriation upon the victim’s request; the government did not report providing any of these benefits to trafficking victims in 2016. The government reportedly provided protection to witnesses involved in trafficking cases, but the government did not report any such cases in this reporting period. In December 2016, the government signed a MOU with an international organization to provide technical assistance and expertise to the government’s human rights commission (HRC) on protection and assistance to trafficking victims, funded by the HRC.

The government increased efforts to prevent trafficking. The government continued to allocate substantial resources for its interagency anti-trafficking working group, and in January 2017, the government finalized a national anti-trafficking action plan, which outlined several anti-trafficking activities from 2017-2020. The government allocated 36 million SAR ($9.6 million) to implement the action plan, a substantial increase from four million SAR ($1.07 million) in 2015. The government continued to implement the wage protection system, which required employers to pay foreign workers through bank transfers, thereby allowing the MOLSD to ensure workers were paid appropriately. The MOLSD did not, however, effectively use this system to flag potential trafficking cases among foreign workers. The government did not take action to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts, but it made efforts to reduce the demand for forced labor. MOLSD continued to employ 1,000 labor inspectors, and during the reporting period, it canceled the licenses of seven recruitment companies, did not renew the licenses of six, and ordered 126 recruitment offices to cease the recruitment of domestic workers. MOLSD imposed fines on 829 work places violating the government’s mid-day work ban during the summer months. The police continued to operate an emergency number, which could refer potential trafficking victims to protection services. The government reported that from September 2015 to September 2016, the hotline received 2,151 complaints; 1,411 of the complaints were resolved through mediation, investigation, or prosecution, and 740 were still in process in September 2016. MOLSD continued to operate a hotline to receive labor dispute complaints with operators that spoke a variety of migrant worker languages. The government did not report if any trafficking victims were identified through this hotline. MOLSD continued to distribute a guidebook to all migrant workers entering the country, which contained MOLSD’s hotline number. The government continued to operate an online portal providing domestic workers and employers with information about their legal rights. During the reporting period, the government finalized domestic worker agreements with several countries, which aimed to protect workers’ contracts with their employers. The government conducted multiple anti-trafficking public awareness campaigns in 2016. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel. The government did not have extraterritorial authority to prosecute Saudi citizens engaged in sex tourism abroad, and the government did not make efforts to discourage their citizens from engaging in child sex tourism.

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, such as construction and domestic work, including men who work in private residences as gardeners, handymen, and cleaners, or low-skilled laborers; some of these workers are subjected to forced labor. Some migrants are illegally recruited to work in Saudi Arabia and subsequently forced into domestic servitude and debt bondage. The foreign worker population is the most vulnerable to trafficking in Saudi Arabia, particularly female domestic workers, due to their isolation inside private residences. An international organization 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 domestic workers experience severe mental, physical, and sexual abuse by their employers. Some foreign citizens, who have experienced indicators of trafficking, have been prosecuted for crimes and placed on death row. Non-payment of wages is the most common complaint from foreign workers in the Kingdom, while employers withholding workers’ passports remains a significant problem. Due to Saudi Arabia’s requirement under its sponsorship, or kafala, system that foreign workers obtain permission from their employers for an exit visa to leave the country legally, some are forced to work for months or years beyond their contract term because their employers will not grant them permission for the visa. Although many migrant workers sign contracts with their employers, some report work conditions substantially different from those described in the contract; other workers never see a work contract at all. Some migrant workers voluntarily enter into illegal arrangements and pay a Saudi citizen to sponsor their residence permit while they seek freelance work, thus becoming vulnerable to possible extortion by their sponsors. In previous years, criminal gangs subjected children from Yemen to forced labor as beggars and street vendors. Some migrants from Yemen and the Horn of Africa entering Saudi Arabia illegally—sometimes with the help of smugglers—via the Yemeni border may be trafficking victims. Some Saudi citizens reportedly engaged in sex tourism abroad, and there were media reports that some Saudi men traveled abroad to engage in “summer” or “temporary marriages,” which include payment for short-term sexual access to children and others who the purchaser then abandons. For example, the Jordanian government reported a case in 2016 involving a Syrian girl who was forced by her father into a “temporary marriage”—for the purpose of sexual exploitation—for six months with a Saudi Arabian national.

U.S. Department of State

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