By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – At least 30 Filipinos were arrested in Saudi Arabia with unclear charges, reports read.
“As of yesterday (Tuesday), the embassy in Riyadh has not monitored any arrest of OFWs who have violated the Saudi labor law,” Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez said in a Philippine Daily Inquirer report.
Hernandez, however, added that, “there were reports of 30 Filipinos who have been arrested in Jeddah. Our consulate in Jeddah is trying to verify details of their arrest.”
In July 2011, Saudi’s Ministry of Labor announced the implementation of Nitaqat Scheme, also referred to as the Saudization Policy, which directs employers to prioritize the hiring of Saudi nationals over migrant workers.
The Philippine government, through the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, said then that the policy would have no effect on Filipino migrant workers. Saudi Arabia, for the past decades, is among the prime destinations of Filipinos who want to work abroad due to the lack of available jobs in the country.
But on March 22, 2013, the crackdown on migrant workers, referred to as “illegal” in some media reports, began. Migrante Partylist, in a statement, has earlier criticized the crackdown, saying that it has resulted to gross human rights violations.
“Needless to say, the embassy is monitoring what is happening to our people there and it is ready to extend assistance to any Filipino who is arrested because of a violation of the Saudi labor law,” Hernandez told reporters, adding that Filipino migrant workers who may be in need can “come to us and we will see how we could help you.”
But for Migrante Partylist president and first nominee Connie Bragas-Regalado, the Philippine government has yet to take concrete action on the matter. “They said there are no Filipinos affected and they have yet to receive the guidelines from the Saudi Ministry of Labor,” she said.
Regalado added, “(Filipinos) are either in deportation centers, in jail or in fear of their lives and welfare. Only the Philippine embassy is allowed access to deportation centers and jails. If they are going to wait much longer for the so-called guidelines to arrive, we have a bigger problem in our hands.”
Online news publication Al-Akhbar reported a video showing a group of Saudi authorities “binding and beating alleged illegal immigrants” has been circulating. The report said the video, posted on YouTube, has been circulating online and is believed to be a footage from the ongoing crackdown on illegal immigration.
“The footage shows a at least five non-Saudi men lying on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs, surrounded by a dozen men wearing the traditional thobe. One of the foreigners was saying he is innocent, to which one Saudi replied ‘If you had come legally, no one would have tied you up like this’,” the report read.
Saudi Arabia, the report read, has “justified the measures as an attempt to deal with high unemployment among Saudi nationals.”
India, who also has migrant workers in Saudi Arabia who are being affected by the crackdown, was reported to have been processing about 2,000 people going to their embassy in Riyadh to seek Emergency Certificates to return to their country.
The Times of India said in a report that “this sudden clamor for an EC comes in the aftermath of the widespread crackdown on illegal and overstaying immigrants in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Bragas-Regalado also called on other migrant sending countries whose citizens are affected by the crackdown to issue statements and take a stand against the Saudi government’s discrimination against and political prosecution of migrants and expats. Other nationalities such as Palestinians, Indians, Egyptians, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Thais and Koreans are among those affected by the policy.
Deeper than Nitaqat
Migrante Partylist, however, said the crackdown on migrants runs deeper than the Saudization policy.
“The Nitaqat or Saudization policy is just the tip of the iceberg. We believe that it is merely being used as justification for the inhumane arrests, deportation and criminalization of migrant workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Connie Bragas-Regalado, Migrante Partylist chairperson and first nominee, said.
Regalado said the crackdown was sudden and unprecedented. Undocumented workers, she added, are mostly victims of abuse and maltreatment who ran away from their employers.
“But these martial-law style raids resulting in human rights violations are extraordinary,” she said, adding that the raids are being conducted in schools, hospitals and even private homes where migrants and expats are located.
Regalado added that “there is a deeper reason behind the crackdowns.”
In a statement, she cited that the Saudi royal family is confronted by the growing public discontent with the government. “The Royal Family is now threatened by escalating protests in nearby Bahrain against political repression and human rights violations by joint Bahrain-Saudi military forces.”
These crackdowns, Regalado added, are being used to quell protests and to “rid the country of oppositionist groups who, the Royal family believes, are being led by expats and migrants in Saudi.”
“This is not simply Saudi implementing a new and more rigorous immigration policy. This is political discrimination, repression and prosecution of migrants in Saudi. The Philippine government should take a stand against this,” Regalado said.
Call to end the crackdown
The Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, a migrant rights organization based in Hongkong, called on the government of Saudi Arabia to immediately stop the intimidation and crackdown of migrant workers in the country.
“Such actions were sanctioned with the recent inclusion of Article 39 in the KSA’s labor law permitting the Interior and Labor Ministries to inspect, investigate and punish both undocumented migrants and companies employing them,” APMM said in its statement.
The group said that while they see no problem in prioritizing its own citizens over migrants, they see the Saudization policy as a way of “fanning the flames of discrimination, racism and xenophobia. With the intensification of the crisis in many host countries, migrant workers are usually made scapegoats by governments as stealers of jobs or abusers of government services and benefits.”
Instead of resorting to the arrests and punishments on migrant workers and their employers, APMM said the Saudi government should instead address the root causes of why migrant workers become undocumented in the first place.
“Among other prohibitions, it is the practice of the Kafala system that further limits the rights and freedoms of migrant workers. Under the Kafala system, migrant workers are beholden to their employers who have the last word on the workers’ employment in particular and life in the country in general. Whether getting released or opting for a new employer, the migrant worker can only rely on the employer’s final say,” their statement read.
The group urged the Saudi government to “uphold the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families as a positive step toward the recognition of the rights and welfare of migrant workers.”