SAUDI ARABIA: Tier 3

The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so; therefore Saudi Arabia was downgraded to Tier 3. Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government took some steps to address trafficking, including by establishing 107 trafficking-specific investigative sub-units within the prosecutorial sector to help identify trafficking cases among existing criminal cases. It launched a new anti-trafficking awareness campaign and continued to employ its Wage Protection System (WPS) to better safeguard domestic workers’ contracts and train relevant officials on the system. However, the government prosecuted and convicted few traffickers, did not report efforts to address forced labor despite the significant scale of such crimes in the country, and did not pursue criminal investigations against officials purportedly complicit in trafficking crimes despite allegations throughout the reporting period. It continued to fine, jail, or deport migrant workers for prostitution or immigration violations, some of whom were likely unidentified trafficking victims. In addition, the government identified few trafficking victims and regularly treated trafficking crimes (including non-payment of wages and passport withholding) as administrative labor law violations rather than as criminal offenses. Officials did not undertake significant efforts to mitigate the inherent vulnerabilities in its sponsorship-based employment system that exacerbated trafficking risks among the large migrant worker population.

PRIORITIZED RECOMMENDATIONS

Substantially increase the number of trafficking investigations, especially by investigating as potential crimes (not just as administrative issues) indicators of trafficking such as passport retention, withholding of wages, labor violations, and complaints of abuse.

• Undertake serious efforts to prevent penalization of trafficking victims by proactively screening for trafficking among those arrested for immigration violations, prostitution, or those who flee abusive employers and face counter-charges and deportation.

• Increase efforts to prosecute, convict, and sentence trafficking offenders to significant prison terms under the anti-trafficking law.

• Reform the sponsorship system, including by removing employers’ control over exit permits.

• Pursue criminal investigations against officials allegedly complicit in trafficking crimes.

• Develop, train officials on, and regularly use proactive identification and referral mechanisms to ensure victims among vulnerable populations, including domestic workers, illegal foreign workers, deportees, male victims, and persons in prostitution, receive proper care and are not wrongfully penalized.

• Expand usage of the specialized Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) sub-units to detect potential trafficking cases across the country.

• Institute regular trainings for government officials on identifying cases of both labor and sex trafficking and how to differentiate between forced labor and labor-related crimes.

• Expand country-wide public awareness campaigns on all forms of trafficking.

PROSECUTION

The government did not report increased law enforcement efforts. The 2009 anti-trafficking law criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed punishments of up to 15 years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to one million Saudi Arabian riyal (SAR) ($266,670), or both; penalties 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 79 potential trafficking cases and prosecuting 42 of these cases, which involved 43 defendants and 113 victims; this marked a decrease from its combined investigation and prosecution of 177 cases during the previous reporting period. Of these, it convicted 14 defendants under the anti-trafficking law, compared to 20 traffickers the previous year; the government did not report the status of the remaining 29 verdicts. Officials did not disaggregate law enforcement data by the type of trafficking, which resulted in an imprecise determination of how many crimes involved forced labor or sex trafficking versus related criminal offenses. The government reported it sentenced convicted traffickers to terms of imprisonment ranging from one month to two years; in prior reporting periods, it did not report specific penalties or how many traffickers received prison sentences. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking offenses. However, during the reporting period, the Government of Senegal’s anti-trafficking task force alleged some Saudi diplomats stationed in Senegal played a principal role in fraudulently recruiting Senegalese women for employment for Saudi families in the Kingdom; the Senegalese task force reported that some of these Senegalese women faced conditions of involuntary domestic servitude once employed in the Kingdom.

Government officials often handled trafficking cases as administrative immigration or labor law violations, without routinely undertaking criminal investigations or prosecutions against traffickers. During the reporting period, the PPO established 107 trafficking-specific investigative sub-units within PPO branch offices throughout the country to identify possible trafficking cases among existing criminal cases; the government did not report whether the staff within these PPO sub-units worked to detect potential trafficking cases during the reporting period. In November 2018, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) sponsored and facilitated a training on victims’ rights in trafficking cases for 40 participants from relevant government entities; the program covered victim identification and protection, and the role of law enforcement in these areas. The HRC also led a similarly focused training course in January 2019 for an additional 40 officials.

PROTECTION

The government maintained limited efforts to protect trafficking victims. It published information pertaining to trafficking indicators on relevant government websites, and distributed leaflets with similar material to all official stakeholders, but it did not have a standardized mechanism to identify victims and refer them to care. During the reporting period, officials identified and referred to government-run shelters 113 trafficking victims. This is compared to 121 trafficking victims—including 20 victims of forced labor—the government identified during the previous year. Of these, there were 34 child trafficking victims during the reporting period, one of whom was a Saudi national; the remainder were Yemeni. Victim nationalities included Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Philippines, Ghana, Yemen, Bangladesh, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka. In March 2019, officials pledged $2.2 million to an international organization in order to systemically strengthen protection and assistance to vulnerable migrants, to include trafficking victims. In contrast to the previous reporting period, the government did not provide information pertaining to its financial allocation to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) for victim protection and assistance of trafficking victims specifically. MOLSD remained responsible for the operation of shelters across the country for vulnerable populations and abuse victims, some of whom were likely trafficking victims. These included shelters for child beggars in Mecca, Jeddah, Dammam, Medina, Qassim, and Abha, in addition to welfare centers for female domestic workers in at least 10 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. All 113 government-identified victims received these services from the government during the 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.

Among migrant workers there were persistent complaints of unpaid wages, passport retention, physical or sexual abuse, or substandard working conditions, all of which were trafficking indicators. During this reporting period, officials detained and deported more than one million foreign nationals—including more than 300,000 Ethiopian nationals—for violating work, residence, and entry rules; some of these may have been trafficking victims. The HRC reported law enforcement agencies were trained in screening vulnerable populations for trafficking indicators. Labor-sending diplomats reported the government punished trafficking victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit. Furthermore, since the government did not routinely screen for potential trafficking victimization among vulnerable populations, and police frequently arrested and/or deported undocumented migrant workers, authorities likely arrested and deported many unidentified victims during the year.

The government extended to 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 alternatively an immediate exit visa; these benefits did not require a successful prosecution or cooperation with law enforcement personnel. Officials reported granting more than 880,000 laborers the right to transfer their work permits to alternate employers but did not specify how many trafficking victims were included in this figure. 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; as in previous years, it did not report how many victims accessed these provisions during the reporting year. Officials permitted victims to obtain restitution from the government and file civil suits against trafficking offenders; however, such settlements generally occurred outside of civil court proceedings, through government-supported mediation efforts, and did not entail criminal prosecution or, in most cases penalties or interest on the amounts of unpaid wages in dispute. The government reportedly often informally reimbursed workers for back wages and/or assisted in their repatriation to speedily resolve cases of labor violations, including those likely involving trafficking concerns.

PREVENTION

The government demonstrated sustained efforts to prevent trafficking. It demonstrated mixed progress on 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. During the reporting period, the Ministry of Interior’s (MOI) General Directorate for Public Security conducted a workshop for 40 members of their criminal investigative staff on the goals within the government’s national action plan. In November 2018, the government signed a bilateral memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a foreign government on technical cooperation on anti-trafficking initiatives and began to implement elements of that agreement. The government reportedly allocated a perennial budget of 36 million SAR ($9.6 million) for its interagency anti-trafficking secretariat, although the increased dollar amount could not be corroborated during the reporting period. Officials distributed leaflets on trafficking indicators, the anti-trafficking law, and the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers at public cultural events across the Kingdom, such as the Jeddah Book Fair, throughout the year. Additionally, the government launched the “Work with Awareness” campaign in September 2018, which was comprised of videos and radio commercials on various labor and trafficking topics. Officials operated a 24-hour call center that received calls in nine major labor-sending country languages including Arabic, English, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Tagalog, Indonesian, Malay, and Amharic. The government did not report how many victims it identified as a result of the calls, or if it initiated any investigations of trafficking crimes resulting from the calls 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 during the previous year. Some workers reported technical difficulties getting through to representatives using this phone line. The government also continued to operate and utilize its online domestic labor portal known as Musaned, meaning “support” in Arabic, which consisted of a website and smartphone application that allowed newly arrived domestic employees and individual employers to verify the license of a recruitment agency, review materials on employee and employer rights and responsibilities (in Arabic and English only), complete and sign electronic contracts, and request a visa. This system intended to eliminate unregulated brokers, increase transparency and accountability, and reduce the risk of trafficking. It also included a complaints resolution mechanism and associated resources.

During the reporting period, the government continued implementation of its WPS, which required employers to pay foreign workers by electronic transfer via a Saudi bank, thereby permitting the government 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. The government did not report how many Saudi companies were in compliance with the system requirements and what penalties it prescribed to those in noncompliance. The government did not report investigating or referring for criminal prosecution any passport retention crimes; during the previous reporting period, however, authorities conducted investigations of 17 cases of passport retention and imposed a fine upon each defendant per passport withheld without consent, and the prosecutor general investigated four Saudi business owners who retained their workers’ passports without their employees’ consent and referred all four to the judiciary for sentencing of fines in accordance with the ministerial decree.

The government did not report efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts but modestly did so for forced labor. The government sought to eliminate vulnerabilities in labor recruitment through its deployment of labor inspectors—400 of whom specialized in trafficking crimes—and HRC representatives who conducted an unknown number of field visits to monitor the application of employment and recruitment laws; during the prior year, relevant authorities ordered the closure of 14 recruitment offices and the suspension of operations of 40 others that contravened Saudi Arabia’s labor laws, in addition to the imposition of fines on 227 work places that violated the government’s mid-day work ban during the summer months. However, the government did not report referral of any such cases for criminal investigation and prosecution for potential trafficking crimes. Furthermore, during the current reporting period, diplomatic representatives from multiple countries reported a lack of Saudi government oversight over labor recruitment and proper implementation of labor contracts contributed to an unreported number of potential trafficking cases. In 2018, the government negotiated bilateral labor agreements with Indonesia and Ethiopia, which set minimum wage standards and regulated protections and benefits for laborers such as work hours, mandatory time off, and overarching work conditions. Some diplomatic representatives reported implementation of existing labor agreements improved the ability of embassies to monitor the labor conditions of their nationals and to identify and address trafficking and other labor-related issues. The government did not report prosecuting or convicting Saudis for sex tourism outside the Kingdom. The government did not report providing anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.

TRAFFICKING PROFILE

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Saudi Arabia. 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; many of these workers are vulnerable to forced labor. Some traffickers or nefarious brokers illegally recruit migrants to work in Saudi Arabia and subsequently force them into domestic servitude or debt bondage. The Kingdom’s migrant laborer population continued to be the largest group at risk to human traffickers, particularly female domestic workers due to their isolation inside private residences and subjection to employer abuse. According to a regional news source, there are approximately 9.4 million foreign workers—roughly 29 percent of the total population—in Saudi Arabia, and the largest populations during the reporting period hailed from India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sudan. In previous years, the government prosecuted some foreign citizens who may have been subjected to trafficking and sentenced them to death in cases involving murder. Non-payment or late payment of wages remain a recurring complaint from foreign workers in the Kingdom, while employers withholding workers’ passports also remains a significant problem. Trafficking perpetrators include businesses of all sizes, private families, recruitment companies in both Saudi Arabia and labor-sending countries, and organized criminal elements.

Due to Saudi Arabia’s requirement, under its sponsorship system, for foreign workers to obtain permission for an exit visa from their employers to be able to legally depart the country, some laborers are forced to work beyond their contract term because their Saudi employers use state-sanctioned tools as part of a coercive scheme. Although most migrant workers sign contracts delineating their rights, some report work conditions substantially differ from those outlined in their contracts, while others never see work contracts at all, rendering them vulnerable to forced labor and debt-based coercion. 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 and debt-based coercion 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.

In Saudi Arabia, begging by women and children remains a problem and a significant vulnerability to forced labor, with reported upticks during the holy month of Ramadan and the Muslim pilgrimages of Hajj and Umrah. The child beggar population is comprised primarily of unaccompanied migrant children, most heavily from Yemen and Ethiopia, but approximately five percent are Saudi national children of unknown parents. Traffickers compel some of these women and children to work as part of organized begging rings. As the leader of a multi-nation coalition that commenced military operations against Houthi rebel forces in Yemen in 2015, Saudi Arabia paid, materially supported, trained, and commanded Sudan’s Rapid Support Force. Media reported Sudanese officers associated with Sudan’s Rapid Support Force took bribes from families to permit minors to serve as combatants in Yemen during the reporting year. Saudi Arabian officers allegedly trained and commanded some Sudanese combatants. There are reports that Saudi Arabia also may have funded Yemeni militias that in some cases may have hired minors in combatant roles. An international organization reported all parties to the conflict used both boys and girls as uniformed soldiers in combat and to guard checkpoints and military facilities during the reporting period. A second media report claimed the Saudi Arabian government provided salaries, uniforms, and weapons, as well as two to four weeks of weapons training, to Sudanese combatants which included children aged 14-17 years old, who may have been used in direct hostilities in Yemen.

2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Saudi Arabia
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