At the very moment that the U.N. General Assembly was voting to elect Saudi Arabia to the Human Rights Council earlier this month, Saudi police officers, assisted by vigilante mobs, launched an iron-fisted effort to round up and deport millions of undocumented foreign workers. The campaign reportedly entailed imprisoning, killing, and raping African and Asian migrants within its borders and provoked a violent protest by some migrants in the capital.
As reported to one of us (Darara Gubo) in a telephone call from Saudi Arabia, at least ten Ethiopians have been killed and over a dozen raped since the state began the round up in early November. The fact that many of the raids that turned lethal occurred in the middle of the night, together with the closed nature of the Kingdom generally precludes ascertaining the precise numbers of victims.
This harsh crackdown bears the hallmarks of Saudi religious and racial bigotry. Based on local interviews, The Wall Street Journal reported, "Saudi security forces had come to the neighborhood the night before to declare that all illegal African migrants had to leave . . . immediately. Pakistani laborers began trying to help police by catching African workers, and clashes began."
In the riots that accompanied the crackdown in Riyadh's desperately poor Manfuhah district, home to many migrants, at least five people were reportedly killed, including Ethiopian and Sudanese migrants and several Saudi nationals. Ethiopian diplomatic sources reported that three Ethiopian citizens had been killed.
It appears that the state's crackdown was not only directed at immigrants, who lacked documentation, but a video posted on YouTube shows graphic violence indiscriminately directed against a group of people because of their national origin. In it, mobs brutally attack Ethiopian immigrants, several of whom are then pictured dead and injured.
A discriminatory dragnet was also described by Migrante International, a support group for Filipino overseas workers. It warned that Filipinos in Saudi Arabia are now in danger of being "violently dispersed, arrested and detained by Saudi authorities as crackdowns against undocumented migrants resume."
The Catholic AsiaNews.it interviewed domestic helper Amor Roxas, 46, who was among 30 Filipinos recently deported, who said, "Filipino workers were treated like animals, locked in a cell for days with their feet shackled." As of two weeks ago, the Philippine government estimated that over 6,700 undocumented Filipino workers are being held in prison in the Saudi cities of Jeddah, Riyadh, Al Khobar, and Damman.
The Filipino migrants said that the Saudi police rounded them up and placed them in a crowded cell for four days where they had no access to their embassy or any other outside assistance. "Our feet were chained," added Yvonne Montefeo, 32.
Saudi Arabia's crackdown on undocumented workers began last January as part of a Saudi policy to increase employment for Saudi nationals but was suspended until early November to allow millions of migrant workers to obtain permits. In all, there are thought to be 7.5 million foreign workers in that country, nearly a third of the total Saudi population. The campaign, which continues, is expected to force out 2 million workers. Many thousands of Ethiopians, Bangladeshis, Indians, Filipinos, Nepalis, Pakistanis, and Yemenis have already left the country in the past three months.
Even migrants with legal permits to work in the Kingdom lack fundamental rights, including the right to worship. They are not permitted a single church. If Christian and non-Muslim foreign workers die on the job, their remains cannot be buried in Saudi Arabia and must be deported back to their home countries. Many live and work in Saudi Arabia as chauffeurs, domestic workers, and common laborers for decades, yet they are not adequately covered by the labor law, which can leave them without redress for employer abuse and exploitation. Women domestic workers are at particular risk of sexual violence and slave-like conditions.
In its May 2013 report on Saudi Arabia, entitled "Unfulfilled Promises" in reference to Saudi pledges to reform made to another U.N. human-rights body, Amnesty International describes human rights violations faced by migrants:
Typical abuses include long working hours, non-payment of salaries, refusal of permission to return home after completing contracts, refusal to transfer sponsorship and withholding of passports. Domestic workers who flee their employers can be arrested and charged with absconding. Some migrant workers experience physical abuse by their employers, but face enormous challenges in seeking legal remedies. Migrant workers who are able to take their employers to court find themselves embroiled in court cases that can last for years.
Here's an example from the Amnesty report:
In 2011, L P Ariyawathie, a Sri Lankan employed as a domestic worker, was found to have 24 nails and a needle driven into her hands, leg and forehead when she returned to Sri Lanka. She said that the injuries had been inflicted by her employer when she complained about her heavy workload. It is unclear whether the Saudi Arabian authorities investigated the matter.
Countless other egregious human-rights violations are occurring simultaneously in Saudi Arabia, of course, including against its large foreign-worker population. The Saudi government is infamous as a gross violator of human rights across the board. This will not, however, prevent the Saudi government, over the next three years, to sit in judgment of the human-rights record of the United States and the rest of the world.
The Saudi government recently declined to take its seat on the U.N.'s Security Council. For the sake of decency, it should do the same for the Human Rights Council.
Darara Gubo co-authored this column. She is a human-rights scholar based in Atlanta, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nina Shea directs the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.