By Mahmoud Ahmad
April 22, 2013
THE news to grant Burmese expatriates residency permits (Iqamas) free of cost was a decision long awaited. The Burmese Muslim community that escaped from the inhumane treatment by the government of Burma (now called Myanmar) years back found themselves in an awkward position when they arrived in the Kingdom as they were left in limbo (accepted into the country but were not granted Iqamas or residency permits).
With the residency permit lacking, the community faced many difficulties whenever they tried to legally obtain something for the want of Iqamas.
These expatriates were most affected when they wanted to pursue higher education — or even basic education for their children. The vast majority of this community was forced to put an end to their quest for education and start working at an early age. Even this was at a premium and they were left to fight for odd jobs that came their way.
Only a small percentage of the Burmese community holds higher degrees. This is evident when someone visits the community’s residential area to ascertain the poor condition they are living in. It was reported earlier that there are over 500,000 Burmese living all over the Kingdom. They are living in underdeveloped neighbourhoods and, for them; to get a job is something extremely difficult. The reason is evident — lack of papers that in turn leaves them with lack of education and keeps them in a perpetual “Catch-22” situation.
Historically, the Burmese have been migrating to the Kingdom from the time of King Abdul Aziz, escaping persecution in their home country. They chose to migrate to the Kingdom because it is one of the few states that is humane enough to offer them a place to stay.
No one will question the loyalty of the Burmese living in the Kingdom toward the country. They have got used to living in the Kingdom and have modified their lifestyles to that of their brethren since they have no choice and cannot return back home. No one will also question the loyalty of the new generation that was born and raised in the Kingdom.
After all they have seen no other country except Saudi Arabia. Even if they were granted safety to return to Myanmar, I am sure the majority will not cope in living back in Myanmar. The recent decision to correct the statuses of these Burmese expatriates will enable them to be provided with health care, educational facilities and also job opportunities.
The news of fixing the condition of the Burmese raised another question: What about the others? We have to admit that there are huge communities living in the Kingdom that are facing a similar situation, especially illegal residents from African nationalities. The only difference is that we know where the Burmese came from. In the case of the Africans, however, no one knows their original country, whether they are from Chad, Nigeria, Niger or other countries.
The reason the Africans keep their anonymity is to escape deportation when caught during the drives to nab overstayers and illegals. When it comes to ascertaining the country of origin of these Africans, the passport department is at sea to which country the illegal or overstayer should be deported to.
We also notice that their numbers are on the rise and that is a problem, which is small now but could become a big one in the future. So it is better that the issue is dealt with now before the problem worsens. Similar to the conditions of Burmese, the new generation of these people with unknown nationalities are born and raised in the Kingdom. In the eye of the country they are not residents, however, they see themselves to belong to this country because they have not seen their homeland.
I have met people of African nationalities who were born and raised in the Kingdom and speak Arabic fluently. They are facing a problem of not having an identity. In their minds they believe they are just as equal to any Saudi man on the street, yet they have no identification or Iqama. Their parents came from their original countries for Umrah and Haj and lived in the Kingdom illegally for many years. I remember what an illegal resident told me at that time; he said that his loyalty is to this country and to this country only. He told me that he does not want the nationality but wants to hold an Iqama so he could work in any job without the fear of being rejected or targeted. He wanted to participate in the development of the country and be part of it.
It was music to my ears and I am sure it is the same with many others when Makkah Governor Prince Khaled Al-Faisal commented to a local daily on Saturday that the government is currently reviewing to correct the living conditions of other unknown communities. I am sure that correcting the situation of unknown nationalities will reduce the crime rate and will help develop the underdeveloped communities and the areas they are living in.
I know that the condition of Saudi Arabia is different from many other countries in the region. Millions of pilgrims from all over the world arrive in Saudi Arabia every year for Haj and Umrah. In other countries, foreigners enter through visa, which is strongly controlled. A large number of pilgrims decide to overstay and violate the residency law. The children born to these people who overstayed do not have to pay the price committed by the parents if we want to discuss this from a humanitarian point of view.
It is sad that the majority of crimes are committed by these young illegals of unknown nationalities. The decision will affect everyone, including Saudi citizens and legal expatriates working in the Kingdom. If their situation is fixed then they will have access to education and job opportunities and the crime rate will drop sharply. They can close the gap of many jobs in the market. They have been living in the Kingdom for many years and the country will benefit from them, instead of recruiting hundreds of thousands from abroad. We have to review their position for humanitarian purposes.