By Badria al-Bishr
15 November 2013
Imagine waking up one day to find that essential services are no longer functioning because the workers they rely on are hiding from a government campaign against illegal residents. This is the reality of Saudi Arabia.
A grace period had allowed many illegal residents to correct their legal statuses, but since its expiry, old neighborhoods in Riyadh have been transformed into havens for illegal residents. Operations to find them have turned into riots, mainly due to rumors that spread fear among security forces and illegal residents alike. Each party thinks that the other wants to kill it or take revenge on it.
State Of Insecurity
We have been living in a state of insecurity and social chaos ever since the campaign began. It is akin to realizing that your maid, instead of cleaning the house, has been sweeping dust under the carpet. Saudis have lifted the carpet, and realized that they have been living on top of a lot of dirt.
One of my cousins has a small business. Following this campaign, one of the workers asked my relative to be her official sponsor. The laborer said her current sponsor is a wealthy, influential woman who brings many workers into the country in exchange for taking a small cut from their salaries.
She added that in order to cancel her sponsorship, the woman had asked for 10,000 riyals ($2,666) to be paid in installments. She also said this wealthy woman could help someone escape to London or the United States for 15,000 riyals ($4,000).
According to international conventions, this is human trafficking. In Saudi Arabia, we merely call it visa trafficking. This mafia would not have been able to grow if there had not been a fragile labor system that overlooked such practices.
Therefore, the campaign must not be limited to correcting the legal status of workers and deporting illegal residents. It must deal with those who contributed to this sabotage. The sponsorship law must be transformed into a residency law that includes a contract, like in other countries. We must wash the carpet and spread it out to dry, not just wipe the dust from underneath.
Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut, and an alumnus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program. Her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University’s Department of Social Studies.