The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Saudi Arabia remained on Tier 2. These efforts included continuing to investigate, prosecute and convict traffickers and increasing training on screening protocols in detention centers and border areas to improve victim identification among vulnerable migrants. The government also updated victim identification guidelines in its NRM to ensure first responders could quickly provide victims targeted and specialized care and piloted a program to remove employer’s ability to file “absconding” charges against private sector workers, which was previously used as a retaliatory measure to restrict worker’s movements or ability to exercise their rights. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. Authorities did not consistently seek adequate penalties for convicted traffickers, which should include significant prison terms; this undercut efforts to hold traffickers accountable, weakened deterrence, and increased potential security and safety concerns. Domestic workers continued to lack adequate labor law protections equal to those for other private sector workers and were excluded from the most recent sponsorship reforms, which perpetuated high risks to forced labor. The government neither referred most victims to services or care, nor did it have shelters for male victims or female victims besides domestic workers. It also did not consistently screen vulnerable populations for trafficking indicators, which may have resulted in the inappropriate penalization of some victims for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, such as immigration or “prostitution” violations. Finally, the government did not hold alleged complicit officials, including at least one diplomat stationed outside of Saudi Arabia, accountable for trafficking-related crimes, under its anti-trafficking law.
Provide equal protections to domestic workers as private sector workers receive under the labor law and recent labor reforms, to ensure domestic workers’ freedom to change jobs or obtain an exit visa without employer consent and not just in cases of abusive employers.
Ensure victims are not inappropriately penalized solely for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked by proactively screening for trafficking among those arrested for immigration violations, commercial sex crimes, or those who flee abusive employers and face countercharges and deportation.
Increase efforts to prosecute trafficking crimes and seek adequate penalties for convicted traffickers, which should involve significant prison terms.
Pursue criminal investigations against all officials allegedly complicit in trafficking crimes, including diplomats stationed outside of Saudi Arabia.
Ensure all identified victims are referred to care and have access to shelter, including male victims and female victims in employment sectors other than domestic work.
Regularly use, and train officials on, the NRM, to ensure victims among vulnerable populations, including domestic workers, undocumented foreign workers, deportees, and PRC and Cuban overseas workers, including medical professionals and persons in commercial sex, receive proper care.
Ensure border guards and police are adequately trained to proactively identify potential victims, and continue to improve screening protocols, specifically at detention and deportation centers.
Amend the anti-trafficking law to remove sentencing provisions that allow fines in lieu of imprisonment for sex trafficking offenses.
Expand implementation of electronic contracts and the Wage Protection System (WPS) so that workers can utilize the new labor reforms, and include or develop similar initiatives for domestic workers.
Continue to investigate as potential trafficking crimes (not solely administrative issues) indicators of trafficking such as passport retention, withholding of wages, labor violations, and complaints of abuse.
Institute regular trainings for government officials on identifying cases of both labor and sex trafficking and differentiating between forced labor and labor-related crimes.
The government maintained 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 1 million Saudi Arabian riyal (SAR) ($266,670) or both; penalties increased under aggravating circumstances, including trafficking crimes involving a female or child victim. These penalties were sufficiently stringent; however, by allowing for a fine in lieu of imprisonment, the penalties for sex trafficking were not commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes such as kidnapping, false imprisonment, or sexual abuse. During the previous reporting period, the government established a committee advised by two international organizations and composed of the Ministry of Interior (MOI), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the Public Prosecutors Office (PPO), the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development (MHRSD), and the Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC) to consider amendments to the 2009 anti-trafficking law. In 2021, the committee completed a review of seven suggested amendments to the law, which included penalties that combined imprisonment and fines for convicted traffickers and criminalization of personal document confiscation, such as passports. The Council of Ministers recommended finalizing the amendments, but the government did not pass the amendments at the close of the reporting period.
The government continued to utilize the specialized anti-trafficking unit within the PPO, while local police stations within MOI handled alleged trafficking and related cases through relevant human rights departments. Specialized judges presided over cases in all levels of courts across the country. During the reporting period, the government investigated 470 potential trafficking cases, involving 516 alleged traffickers. Of the 516 individuals investigated, 11 were for sex trafficking, 367 were for labor trafficking and 138 were for forced begging and “slavery-like practices”; this was compared with 346 cases in 2021 and 775 cases in 2020. The government prosecuted 100 individuals in 83 cases, compared with the prosecution of 90 individuals in 64 cases during the previous reporting period. Of the 100 individuals prosecuted, 60 were prosecuted for labor trafficking, 24 for forced begging and “slavery-like practices,” and 16 for sex trafficking. Of those prosecuted, courts convicted 60 traffickers under the 2009 law, compared with the conviction of 64 traffickers in 2021 and 62 traffickers in 2020. Courts acquitted 44 traffickers in 30 cases, compared with 26 traffickers in 15 cases in 2021. Of the 60 traffickers convicted, 31 were for sex trafficking, 24 were for labor trafficking, and five were for forced begging and “slavery-like practices.” Judges sentenced most convicted traffickers to terms of imprisonment ranging from one month to 15 years. Although some traffickers also received fines in addition to imprisonment, one foreign trafficker was sentenced to only a fine of 3,000 SAR ($800). While the government did not report the nationality of all traffickers, the length of sentences was consistent irrespective of nationality; out of all convicted traffickers, 54 percent received one-year imprisonment or more. Separately, in one case of domestic servitude during the year, the government convicted a Saudi national for forcing a domestic worker to work for 12 years without pay, without obtaining a residency permit (iqama) for her, and refusing to renew her passport; the trafficker was sentenced to two years imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 SAR ($2,670). Such lenient sentences undercut efforts to hold traffickers accountable, weakened deterrence, and increased potential security and safety concerns for victims. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees, including members of the royal family, complicit in human trafficking crimes; however, corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes, including through inaction, remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action. For example, the United Kingdom (UK) Supreme Court handled a case involving a Saudi diplomat assigned to London who allegedly exploited his Filipino domestic worker by withholding her wages and forcing her to work longer hours than contractually agreed upon without a weekly day off. The court ruled in July 2022 that the Saudi official could not use diplomatic immunity for protection against prosecution in the case and granted permission for the diplomat to appeal the decision. Though the UK government has not made a ruling in the alleged trafficking case; the government of Saudi Arabia classified the case as a labor dispute based on the existing employment contract and did not investigate it as a trafficking case.
The government continued using electronic communications – first implemented in 2020 in response to the pandemic through its Najiz platform – to investigate, prosecute, and convict criminal cases, including cases of trafficking; and deliver memoranda, court documents, and judgments digitally. The MOJ was able to receive written pleadings, hold virtual hearings, and issue judgments through this platform. It also continued to hold remote trials in courts and prisons across the Kingdom, including for an unknown number of trafficking cases. Some government officials continued to misclassify trafficking cases as administrative immigration or labor violations without routinely undertaking criminal investigations or prosecutions against suspected traffickers. The PPO maintained 17 trafficking-specific, operational investigative sub-units within branch offices (two in Riyadh and the remainder in the capital of each province) to identify potential trafficking cases among existing criminal cases. The PPO continued to have a panel of five human trafficking experts, who informed anti-trafficking policy and served as resources at the PPO headquarters and for circuit offices. Throughout the reporting period, the Kingdom’s human trafficking entities conducted 41 anti-trafficking trainings, some in close partnership with two international organizations and others conducted solely by MHRSD, MOJ, PPO and MOI. The trainings reached more than 2,000 representatives from recruitment agencies, screening committees at detention centers, border guards, airport staff, judges, prosecutors, labor inspectors, police, shelter staff and imams and preachers within the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA); these programs raised awareness of trafficking vulnerabilities within migrant communities and covered victim identification and referral, best practices in screening vulnerable populations in detention centers, trauma-informed and victim-centered assistance and interviewing techniques, inspection procedures, evidence collection, and criminal investigative procedures during trafficking trials.
The government increased overall efforts to protect trafficking victims, but did not provide services to all identified victims nor provided shelter to male or female victims not employed as domestic workers. The government identified 1,454 potential victims and referred 301 of these to government shelters; of the 301 referred to care, 100 received services from the government. This was an increase compared with its identification of 1,175 potential victims and referral of 185 trafficking potential victims to government-run shelters in 2021; the government provided services to 173 of the 185 victims referred during the previous reporting period. The government reported the other 1,153 potential victims identified did not qualify for referral or chose not to accept referral to government shelters; instead, most sought to repatriate or stay at their embassy-provided shelter. The government did not report why the other 201 referred to government shelters did not receive services. An international organization identified and referred seven female labor trafficking victims to care; all received services from the government. Of the 1,454 potential victims identified by the government, 942 were for forced labor, 130 for sex trafficking, and 382 for forced begging and “slavery-like practices.” The victims were nationals of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and Yemen.
Although the government did not report the amount it allocated for overall protection efforts, the NCCHT allocated approximately 10.9 million SAR ($2.91 million) for anti-trafficking efforts during the year, aside from funding for its agreements with two international organization, which included protection related support. The government continued to use MHRSD-operated shelters, which were managed by a private entity. MHRSD shelters provided assistance for child victims of forced begging in Mecca, Jeddah, Dammam, Medina, Qassim, and Abha, in addition to welfare centers for vulnerable female domestic workers and trafficking victims in 13 locations throughout the Kingdom. Each shelter provided accommodation, social services, health care, psychological counseling, education, and legal assistance. The government offered these services to 100 victims during the reporting period; five of the victims also received cash assistance ($14,920 combined) from the government’s Victims Assistance Fund used for reintegration, repatriation, and support upon arriving in their home country. Diplomats from labor-source 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 Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Uganda – also operated shelters for their respective nationals. Foreign diplomats reported Saudi officials frequently left potential trafficking victims at their respective embassies rather than referring them to Saudi shelters while noting Saudi government shelters accepted only female domestic workers. Moreover, the government did not have shelters to accommodate male victims or females from other employment sectors. The government reported one identified male victim was offered shelter in coordination with a civil society organization, but preferred to stay with close friends. In 2020, the government reported plans to gradually shift shelter responsibilities to NGOs and open a dedicated trafficking shelter for all potential victims of trafficking in coordination with an NGO; the government reported it submitted a plan to the royal court for approval in 2022 but did not report further progress on this plan at the close of the reporting period.
The government continued to utilize its NRM, first launched in March 2020, to identify potential victims and refer them to care. The government reported it continued efforts to implement an electronic version of the NRM developed to better coordinate agencies and track and input data on identification and referrals in real-time, following its dissemination of a hard-copy NRM to front-line officials, government agencies, NGOs, civil society, and other stakeholders in 2020. Additionally, the HRC established an organizational unit under the NCCHT secretariat to act as the focal point for coordinating trafficking cases and referrals with other sub-teams in the NRM across the Kingdom to improve coordination between NRM stakeholders. The HRC also continued to update the NRM’s referral and complaints form for first responders to improve identification of cases; the updated form included trafficking indicators, as well as risk assessment tools and guidelines to determine the type of assistance victims may need. The government also continued to implement an NRM policy requiring police to allow potential victims to spend at least three days at the shelter before a statement could be taken to begin a formal criminal investigation.
Migrant workers continued to document and assert being subjected to unpaid wages, passport retention, physical or sexual abuse, or substandard working conditions, many of which were trafficking indicators. Although the government had proactive identification procedures through the NRM and reported it screened all migrants in detention centers for trafficking indicators through forms developed by MOI and through NCCHT’s previously established screening committees, the government continued to detain and deport large numbers of migrants during the year in short periods of time; this practice suggested authorities did not consistently and systematically screen all individuals for trafficking indicators, and therefore likely arrested and deported some unidentified victims solely for immigration violations committed as a direct result of being trafficked. For example, international NGOs reported between November and December 2022, the government arrested more than 73,800 migrants; according to MOI authorities, 43,200 migrants were arrested for violating residency laws, 11,500 for violating labor regulations, and 19,200 for violating border regulations; separately, in the same period, the government deported 46,000 undocumented migrants. Nonetheless, the government reported circulating specific implementing guidelines for screening individuals in detention, including how to refer a potential trafficking victim after screening through the NRM. The PPO continued to direct all its branches and law enforcement agencies to cease deportation of any potential trafficking victims or anyone involved in an active trafficking case without the PPO’s prior approval, and the government continued to instruct each circuit court to screen defendants for potential trafficking indicators and to drop pending charges against identified trafficking victims. Diplomats from several labor-source countries continued to report, however, that Saudi authorities regularly detained, fined, and/or jailed their nationals, which likely included unidentified trafficking victims, for immigration violations committed as a result of being trafficked. The government also did not consider certain populations’ vulnerability to forced labor if they were deported; in early 2022, NGOs reported four ethnic Uyghur Muslims, including a child, remained in detention without charge or trial in Saudi Arabia and were facing immediate deportation to the PRC where they would be at high risk of arbitrary detention, harassment, and forced labor. At the close of the reporting period, all four individuals remained in detention.
The government extended to all identified trafficking victims the option of remaining in the country during judicial proceedings – either in a shelter or via transfer to a new employer, or alternatively an immediate exit visa; these benefits did not require a successful prosecution or cooperation with law enforcement personnel. The government reported it also provided legal alternatives to the removal of foreign trafficking victims to countries where they might face retribution or hardship. The government, in coordination with an international organization, repatriated 18 individuals to their countries of origin. The government continued to implement a policy allowing victims and potential victims to work while their labor dispute or criminal case was adjudicated, regardless of whether they resided in a shelter and even if their work permits had expired; however, it did not report whether any victims or potential victims received work permits or temporary residency status during the year. The government reported it allowed victims to submit testimony in written form or remotely via recording as they preferred, and it ensured victims’ identities remained confidential. The government reported a potential victim’s testimony was only taken if the potential victim provided informed consent, in adherence with the NRM. The government continued to allow all potential trafficking victims who desired to proceed with a legal case pursuant to the NRM but also wanted to voluntarily return to their country of origin, to be assigned a pro bono attorney; the MOJ extended notary services during the year to facilitate the assignment of a lawyer as a proxy for potential victims. The law entitled trafficking victims to legal assistance, security protection, translation services, and the right to immediate repatriation or continued residence in Saudi Arabia until resolution of the case, in addition to medical and psychological care, shelter, and rehabilitation. The government reported 122 victims participated in law enforcement proceedings, with 23 receiving legal services, including two victims repatriated and assigned proxy lawyers to represent them in court. The government continued to use its Unified Translation Center Initiative to provide interpretation and translation services to the courts and judicial facilities to protect the rights of non-Arabic speaking victims in court proceedings; however, the government did not report whether any trafficking cases used this service during the year. Officials permitted victims to obtain compensation directly from the government and/or by filing civil suits against traffickers; however, such settlements rarely took place and reportedly generally occurred outside of civil court proceedings through government-supported mediation efforts. These proceedings often did not entail criminal prosecution, and officials preferred to reimburse back-wages informally and/or assist in repatriating the victims. If victims sought to obtain restitution from defendants in criminal cases, victims often experienced delays in receiving it.
The government maintained efforts to prevent trafficking. The government continued to implement its 2021-2023 NAP and renewed agreements with two international organizations to continue cooperation and build capacity to combat human trafficking, including by implementing the NAP. As part of its renewed agreement with one international organization, it fully operationalized its Victim Assistance Fund. The NCCHT met 14 times during the reporting period; two meetings focused on reviewing the committee’s mandate and revamping it based on feedback from members and proposing recommendations to improve the NAP’s implementation. It also prepared an executive implementation mechanism for 2023, which incorporated new activities in the NAP. Further, the NCCHT and HRC established an NRM Management Unit assigned to monitor and analyze trafficking indicators from referrals to identify the most common forms of trafficking in Saudi Arabia and inform future anti-trafficking efforts. Finally, MHRSD organized workshops with embassies of India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan to discuss issues related to worker’s rights and combating trafficking in persons.
The government continued to make efforts to prevent forced labor through its Single Electronic Contract and Wage Protection System (WPS), both implemented through the Mudad electronic platform. MHRSD continued to implement its Single Electronic Contract, which obligated companies and employers to include the type of work, salary, duration of contract, working hours, weekends, and annual leave for worker’s contracts in the private sector. Companies had to sign such contracts in the system, enabling MHRSD to electronically account for, authenticate, and monitor all employment contracts in the private sector; employers and employees verified each contract filed through the Mudad electronic platform. The platform also provided employees access to their contract and ensured MHSRD could impose sanctions on establishments that contravened the terms contained therein; the contract on file could also be used in a potential labor dispute. If an employer did not have an e-contract on file, the employer could be fined up to 3,000 SAR ($800) for each employee. The government’s WPS continued to require employers to pay foreign workers by electronic transfer via a Saudi bank, thereby permitting the government to track disbursements and non- or delayed payment of wages in real-time. In cases of non-compliance, MHSRD investigated the employer and screened for other potential trafficking indicators. For any employer or firm that failed to maintain at least 80 percent compliance on a monthly basis or failed to submit monthly WPS data, the government could impose penalties, including suspension of government services and recruitment privileges. The WPS was not available for domestic workers, but continued to mandate employers issue prepaid payroll or salary cards to domestic workers on arrival.
The government continued to implement the Labor Reform Initiative (LRI), which was launched in March 2021 to help improve conditions for private sector migrant workers in the Kingdom, through Ministerial Resolution No. 51848/1442. The LRI mandated private sector workers no longer needed their employer’s permission to travel abroad (obtain an exit and re-entry visa), obtain final exit visas, or change employers at the conclusion of their contract or after one year; this provided increased freedom of movement and therefore may have reduced the risk of forced labor for seven million private sector workers in the Kingdom. Workers could use electronic applications to automate the process for transferring employment, notify an employer of their departure and re-entry, and receive a final exit visa. Since implementation of the reform, the government reported 679,995 foreign workers changed employers without the consent of their current employer and 618 foreign workers obtained final exit permits without employer consent. In June and September 2022, MHRSD issued circulars allowing all private sector workers to change jobs between all private sector companies; previously, workers could only change jobs between individual establishments. The government also mandated new employers were not responsible for outstanding government fees for workers hired from another employer, making it easier for workers to begin a new contract with a new employer more quickly. However, NGOs reported concerns the visa sponsorship system would persist as long as both the employee’s work and residence visas were tied to an employer. These organizations noted the reforms did not abolish the exit permit entirely – as a worker still submitted a request to MHRSD for an exit permit, and the ministry notified the employer electronically of the worker’s request. The employer then had 10 days to lodge an inquiry into the worker’s exit permit request, and an employer’s inquiry could potentially be used to deny the worker an exit permit. Labor-source embassy representatives raised concerns that some employers filed absconding charges as a retaliatory measure against their employees to prevent them from changing employers, obtaining a final exit visa, or during labor disputes to avoid paying overdue salaries or end of service benefits. To address these retaliatory actions preventing workers from exercising their rights under the reforms, MHRSD reported it piloted a program in October 2022 to discontinue the reporting system whereby employers previously could report a worker had “absconded,” rendering the worker undocumented and vulnerable to deportation. Previous regulations also absolved the employer of the legal responsibility or liability for the worker, which limited the government’s ability to hold abusive employers accountable. The new program allowed employers to submit a request to terminate an employee under the status “discontinued from work,” which did not confer criminal liability; rather, workers had 60 days to change employers or depart the country before facing immigration violations. This pilot program covered all private sector workers, but not domestic workers.
Several NGOs continued to express concern the LRI did not include the four million domestic workers employed in Saudi Arabia, a group highly vulnerable to trafficking and other abuse. The government took limited action to enact reforms to ensure domestic workers would receive protections similar to those for private sector workers. For example, MHRSD reported it expanded the circumstances in which domestic workers could transfer sponsorship without employer permission. Otherwise, domestic workers could change employers with their sponsor’s permission and only without sponsor permission after two years of employment. In 2019 the government removed the requirement for employer approval to receive a final exit visa for domestic workers whose sponsors failed to pay required fees or renew a worker’s status, or were absent. In practice, however, international NGOs reported some domestic workers who experienced such circumstances were not able to change employers or obtain exit permits. In one example during the year, when a domestic worker attempted to contact police after she experienced extremely long working hours, passport confiscation, and sexual and physical abuse, the police contacted her employer for her residency permit and passport and asked the employer to take the worker to the hospital for her injuries or her recruitment agency office to resolve the issue; instead, the employer took the worker back to his home, confiscated her phone and beat her.
Saudi labor law protections do not encompass domestic work. However, Decision No. 310/1434 of 2013 granted some protections for this population through regulations on working hours, rest periods, annual leave, end of service benefits, written employment contracts, and payment of wages on a monthly basis. Under this decision, domestic workers included both male and female household workers, private drivers, gardeners, and security guards. International NGOs continued to express concern that gaps in the law left domestic workers vulnerable to passport confiscation and being charged recruitment fees. Additionally, the law did not require compensation for overtime, nor did it limit the workday to eight hours (domestic workers could work up to 15 hours a day including breaks). The law also included vague provisions on suitable accommodation, paid sick leave, and healthcare. NGOs reported domestic workers continued to experience non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workloads, and severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Authorities only sought authorization to enter a home if there was overwhelming evidence of a crime, which left some unidentified victims at risk of exploitation and without protection, especially if a domestic worker could not leave their employer’s home to report abuse. In December 2022, an investigative media report asserted Ugandan domestic workers were being “sold” and moved between employers online without the workers’ consent. MHRSD officials reportedly worked to issue warnings to site operators and remove and screen such listings; however, penalties were not applied to any Saudi employers using the platform to “sell” or transfer their worker to another employer during the year.
The government continued to operate and utilize its online domestic labor portal known as Musaned, meaning “support” in Arabic; the system included 459 private registered recruitment agencies that could recruit domestic workers; agencies not registered in the system could not recruit such workers. This system consisted of a website and smartphone application that allowed potential employees in various sectors and individual employers to verify the license of a recruitment agency, review materials on employee and employer rights and responsibilities, complete and electronically sign contracts, and request a visa; in 2022, MHRSD reported it required employers to provide the tasks, responsibilities, salary and duration of the employment in the electronically signed contract. The system intended to eliminate unregulated brokers, increase transparency and accountability of recruitment agencies and work contracts, and reduce the risk of forced labor; it also included a complaints resolution mechanism and served as a way to authenticate contracts for domestic workers in their home countries. Overall, diplomats from multiple labor-source countries reported Musaned enhanced the ability of embassies to monitor newly arrived nationals; however in some cases, embassies found some information entered in the platform, such as address of residence and place of work, was either missing or incorrect following a transfer, which impeded efforts to track reported victims of abuse and trafficking. The application was also only available in English and Arabic, and therefore of limited use to potential domestic workers who did not speak, read, or understand these languages. An international organization noted in cases where language barriers were present, a foreign domestic worker was unlikely to access the system and instead relied on recruitment agencies in their home country to provide and interpret the recruitment process. MHRSD reported implementing a program called Weddi (“friendly” in Arabic), which was an alternative dispute resolution mechanism whereby a worker could electronically submit a labor complaint and supporting documentation. If either the employee or employer rejected the proposed resolution via arbitration, officials would automatically transfer the case to the MOJ labor courts for administrative settlement.
During the reporting period, the government continued to raise awareness of trafficking, targeting employers, migrant workers, including domestic workers, labor-source country embassies, and the general public. The NCCHT continued to use its Twitter accounts in both Arabic and English to raise awareness on trafficking. The HRC provided awareness materials through its website and Twitter in 10 languages (English, Urdu, French, Arabic, Indonesian, Malay, Hindi, Tagalog, Nepali and Tamil) following coordination in the previous reporting period with labor-source embassies to expand materials into other languages. The HRC launched several initiatives between July and August to raise awareness of the crime, penalties under Saudi law, indicators of trafficking, and how to report a potential case to authorities; this included press releases from MHRSD, the HRC, and MOI; television and radio interviews; publishing print media articles, informative graphics and digital media; as well as videos and tweets. Separately, the NCCHT and HRC launched a media campaign on forced begging as a form of trafficking and warned against child abuse in begging; the campaign was covered by television and mass media. Nonetheless, literacy and language barriers continued to prevent some workers from benefiting from awareness activities. MHRSD continued to implement a program to send labor attachés to key labor-source countries to enhance coordination on suspected trafficking cases and ensure workers from labor-source countries were adequately informed of their rights before arriving in Saudi Arabia; during the year, the Saudi labor attaché in the Philippines conducted an awareness session targeting domestic workers coming to the Kingdom.
MHRSD officials operated a 24-hour call center that could receive calls in nine major labor-source country languages: Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, English, Tagalog, Hindi, Indonesian, Malayalam, and Urdu. The MHRSD hotline was included in pamphlets given to all foreign workers who entered the Kingdom during the year. The MOI’s crime reporting app, Koolna (“All of Us”), continued to have a feature that allowed users to report trafficking crimes as a standalone option. The HRC continued to operate a separate center to receive calls, texts, and WhatsApp messages; it was staffed with operators trained on identifying potential trafficking cases and could receive calls in English and Arabic. The NCCHT continued to allow individuals to submit information on potential trafficking crimes through its website but did not report if it received such information during the year. The government regularly shared all hotline numbers on social media platforms; furthermore, all hotline operators had standard checklists to screen for trafficking indicators and if a potential case was identified, operators refer the case to the applicable points of contact per the NRM. The government identified 37 potential trafficking cases via its hotlines, including 12 cases from the HRC’s call center and 25 received by MOI. All 37 cases were referred for criminal investigation. Some workers and labor-source country officials continued to report impracticalities and technical difficulties getting through to call center operators, citing poorly trained and under-resourced staff.
The government deployed labor inspectors and HRC officials – 400 of whom specialized in trafficking crimes – to conduct 1.2 million labor inspections to monitor the application of employment and recruitment laws; of the inspections conducted, officials identified 33,869 violations. Separately, MHRSD received 43,628 worker complaints; most grievances were for passport retention, non-payment of wages, and not having a contract on file, all common indicators of trafficking. The government identified an unknown number of potential trafficking cases during these inspections and referred them to MOI for further investigation, compared with 28 potential trafficking cases referred last year from inspections. Diplomatic representatives from several countries continued to report improvements in Saudi government oversight of labor recruitment and the proper implementation of labor contracts. In instances of passport confiscation, officials generally worked to give the employer notice before pursuing violations; during the year, MHRSD provided 199 notices to employers who confiscated their worker’s passports. Of those 199 notices, eight employers received violations for continuing to be non-compliant following the notice. Although the Council of Ministers’ Decision 166 prohibited withholding workers’ passports as a violation punishable by fines, the government did not report if it issued any such fines during the reporting period to employers in violation. The government continued to provide a questionnaire for labor inspectors to complete for situations where they suspected a trafficking crime; inspectors sent completed forms following an inspection to MHRSD’s anti-trafficking department to be referred for criminal investigation. The HRC Secretariat did not report the number of general complaints it received from workers during the reporting period; however the HRC reported two complaints were referred to the MHRSD, which then referred the complaints to MOI and PPO for further investigation. The MHRSD did not report the number of complaints filed through its Domestic Labor Dispute Committee and Trafficking Hotline Program or if any complaints were referred to MOI or PPO for further investigation. The government had several bilateral labor agreements with labor-source countries, including Ethiopia and Indonesia, which set minimum wage standards and regulated protections and benefits for migrant workers, such as hours, mandatory time off, and overarching conditions. In 2022, the government signed agreements with Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Sierra Leone to enhance oversight over recruitment and employment processes, including provisions on the prohibition of worker-paid recruitment fees, mandatory contract verification, ensuring grievance mechanisms for workers, and setting specific penalties against recruitment companies that violate such agreements. Following a one-year ban on the employment of Filipino workers in the Kingdom by the Government of the Philippines, in November 2022, both governments signed a new agreement that allowed recruitment of Filipino workers to begin again following discussions throughout the year. The government did not report efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The government provided anti-trafficking training to its diplomatic personnel.
In 2022, the government held two training sessions on combating trafficking in the context of armed conflict, with a focus on preventing child solider recruitment and use; both sessions were held in conjunction with several international organizations. In addition, the “Child Protection Unit” under the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen administered 24 programs related to child protection in armed conflict. The government reported Border Guard units along the Yemen-Saudi border were mandated to refer potential victims of trafficking recruited by Houthi militia in Yemen for care in the Kingdom. Despite such mandates, during the reporting period, the UN reported in an October 2022 public letter Saudi security forces allegedly indiscriminately or intentionally targeted vulnerable migrants – mostly from Ethiopia’s Tigray region, including women and children, with artillery shelling and small arms fire while such individuals attempted to cross into the Kingdom from Yemen; between January and April 2022, approximately 430 migrants – including potential refugees, asylum seekers and potential trafficking victims – were killed while another estimated 650 were injured. In the same timeframe, international organizations reported Saudi security forces allegedly raped children as young as 13 years old, before pushing them back over the border into Yemen without their clothes.
As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Saudi Arabia. Adults – primarily from South and Southeast Asia and East Africa – voluntarily migrate to Saudi Arabia to work in a variety of sectors, including construction, agriculture, and domestic service. Many of these low-skilled workers are employed in substandard conditions that heighten their risk of forced labor. Some traffickers or unscrupulous labor brokers illegally recruit migrants to work in Saudi Arabia and subsequently force them to work in domestic service. Undocumented entry across the Kingdom’s southwestern border serves as a key gateway for vulnerable Yemeni, Ethiopian, and Somali workers, in particular. The Kingdom’s migrant worker population continued to be the largest group at risk of human trafficking, particularly female domestic workers due to their isolation inside private residences and vulnerability to employer abuse. Non-payment or late payment of wages remain the prominent complaint from foreign workers in the Kingdom. Instances of employers withholding workers’ passports also remains a significant problem. Trafficking perpetrators include businesses of all sizes, private families, recruitment agencies in both Saudi Arabia and labor-source countries, gangs, and organized criminal elements, to include third-country nationals.
As of February 2023, there are approximately 10.9 million foreign workers, constituting 75 percent of the total workforce in Saudi Arabia. This number does not include undocumented workers and it is unclear if this number includes the family members of migrant workers residing with them in the Kingdom. The largest populations during the reporting period were from Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Yemen, four million of which are domestic workers employed as maids, drivers, gardeners, and nannies. As in previous years, in 2022, reports of racial and religious discrimination against African migrants – specifically domestic workers – continued. NGOs and media sources reported increasing concerns about harassment and discrimination among Christian African migrant workers in the Kingdom, rendering them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. Moreover, in 2019, 883 cases of Kenyan domestic workers in distress were reported, and in 2020, 1,035 cases were reported; rights groups suggest the increase in reports was due to increasing abuse and exploitation of workers. Media sources and rights groups reported that following harsh conditions in detention and subsequent deportation, Ethiopian returnees faced increasing trafficking vulnerabilities once back in Ethiopia. While the government reported it had come to an agreement with the Ethiopian government to repatriate 100,000 detained Ethiopians by the end of 2022, rights groups reported 30,000 migrants remain in detention in the Kingdom for lack of legal residency and held in harsh conditions as of December 2022. In July 2021, rights groups reported Saudi Arabian employers began to terminate or not renew contracts of Yemeni professionals in the country following a MHRSD policy change that required businesses to limit the percentage of their workers from certain countries, including Yemen. Workers must find another employer to act as a sponsor to avoid leaving the country or risk detainment and deportation and increased vulnerability to trafficking if found to be residing illegally. PRC nationals employed in Saudi Arabia at worksites affiliated with the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative are vulnerable to conditions of forced labor, including debt bondage, restriction of movement, passport confiscation, excessive overtime, lack of adequate healthcare, and being sold to other employers for which they did not have signed contracts. Separately, NGOs reported the government deported at least five Uyghur Muslims, some while performing religious pilgrimage, back to PRC between 2017 and 2019, where they were vulnerable to arbitrary detention, harassment, and forced labor; in 2021, four Uyghur Muslims faced imminent deportation to the same conditions, and at the close of the reporting period, all four individuals remained in detention in Saudi Arabia. Cuban nationals working in Saudi Arabia may have been forced to work by the Cuban government. While the Saudi government reported more than 200 Cuban medical professionals present in Saudi Arabia operate under contracts between the worker and the Saudi MOH, in 2021 one Cuban doctor working in Saudi Arabia alleged the Cuban government takes 70 percent of the salary Cubans employed on medical missions earn – or roughly $2,000 per month. Furthermore, an NGO reported that while the Kingdom paid Cuban workers a salary, workers are forced by the Cuban government to deliver between 75 and 90 percent of their salary to the Cuban government. Additionally, an NGO reported Cuban workers employed in Saudi Arabia were vulnerable to other abuses, including sexual harassment, forced enrollment into the medical mission program, surveillance, exploitation, restriction of movement, and passport confiscation. The large Rohingya population in the country remains highly vulnerable to exploitation, including in forced labor, due to lack of legal residency and identity documentation. In previous years, Saudi authorities detained and deported Rohingya Muslims back to Bangladesh due to lack of legal residency, where many live in refugee camps and are vulnerable to exploitation.
Some migrant workers are forced to work beyond their contract term because their Saudi employers refuse to grant exit permission or pay the exit fee required by law. Domestic workers lack protections under the labor law and other initiatives, increasing the trafficking risks of this group, which makes up 40 percent of migrant workers in the Kingdom. Although most migrant workers sign contracts delineating their rights, some report work conditions substantially differ from those outlined in their contracts. Other workers never see their work contracts, heightening their risk of 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 using “free visas.” Some migrants from Yemen and the Horn of Africa who enter Saudi Arabia illegally via the Yemeni border – involuntarily or through consented smuggling – are likely trafficking victims. Migrants who enter Saudi Arabia continue to be exploited by smugglers and Saudi employers; for example, one report noted smugglers who transported undocumented migrants into the Kingdom made arrangements with Saudi employers to receive salaries of migrants directly – mostly in the domestic work sector. In Saudi Arabia, begging by women and children is prevalent and a significant vulnerability to forced labor, with reported upticks in forced begging during the holy month of Ramadan and the Muslim pilgrimages of Hajj and Umrah. The child beggar population is composed primarily of unaccompanied migrant children, mostly from Yemen and Ethiopia, but approximately five percent are Saudi national children. 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, from 2018-2019, Saudi Arabia allegedly paid and materially supported Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Yemen. Media alleged during that time period that Sudanese families bribed Sudanese officers associated with RSF to unlawfully recruit and use children to serve as combatants in Yemen, but there were no similar allegations during the current reporting period. Between 2018-2019, Saudi Arabian officers trained and exercised tactical control over some RSF units in Yemen. Past reporting claimed that in some instances Saudi Arabia funded Yemeni militias that hired children in combatant roles, and that the Saudi Arabian government had provided salaries, uniforms, weapons, and training to Sudanese combatants (which included children aged 14-17 years old) in Yemen, but there were no similar allegations during the current reporting period. In 2021, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen reportedly established a “Child Protection Unit” that worked with the UN to provide care to Houthi-recruited child soldiers. Since 2016, the Saudi-funded King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center facilitated programs to rehabilitate child soldiers in Yemen.