Eritreans in KSA: Struggle against All Odds

Radio Erena: 16 February 2021

Saudi Immigration authorities had deported more than a hundred Eritreans in the past weeks. The deportees have spent some months in the deportation prisons and were sent to Massawa.

The news may be routine and not an eye-catcher as many expatriates who breach the residence permit regulations are sent to their countries, but the Eritrean deportees’ story is different and depressing at the same time.

In 2011, the approximate number of Eritreans in Saudi Arabia was estimated at 100,000. The Western part of Saudi Arabia had the largest portion of 60,000, while the capital and its environs had 35,000; the rest lived around the oil-rich Eastern area of the vast Kingdom.

The majority of the Eritrean workforce is composed of domestic laborers: nannies, drivers, and maidservants. During the reign of King Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz (1964-1975) which coincided with the flux of Eritrean immigration, incoming Eritreans had enjoyed special preferential status along with the Yemenis, including exemption from deportation, free government schooling, and university scholarships.

In November 2013 and according to the new residence permit regulations (Iqama laws), and in a mass counter movement 900,000 foreigners left Saudi Arabia to their countries, mainly Asians. The move came after a three-month ‘Muhlah’ or grace period for the expatriates to resettle their legal residence situation in the Kingdom. It was during this time period that the Eritreans realized the extent of their calamity. Eritrea is run from its liberation in summer 1991 by the Stalin-like figure, the terrible Isias Afwerki, who imposes an indefinite military service on Eritreans aged 18 to 52. Fear of their children ending up in a military camp forced families in Saudi Arabia to turn to other destinations. Dictatorship and forced military conscription aside, the unbearable unemployment is another real hindrance of return. In comparison, whereas Indians, Indonesians, and Pakistanis return to relatively engaging national labor markets, Eritreans can’t secure jobs that can provide a decent living. Staying in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is complicated with the rising fees of Iqama renewals and the educational fees. Therefore, hundreds of families are trapped in illegal residency situations with no hope of leaving anywhere.

For lack of adequate education, qualifying training, and work skills, the majority of Eritreans are considered as a law-wage marginal workforce. Commenting on the departure of the 900,000 expatriates in 2013, a Saudi economic expert said that their parting won’t shake the Saudi economy, because most of those who left are the marginal workforce. It is the same category in which most of the Eritreans fall.

The hidden part of the Eritreans’ tragedy in Saudi Arabia is the extortion imposed by the Embassy in Riyadh and the Consulate in Jeddah. The 2% income tax collected from all Eritreans in KSA applies even to those who don’t have regular income jobs. On the other hand, the frequent and unending extortion campaigns aggravate their situation. Last year, under the pretext of resisting the Corona pandemic and supporting their fellow country’s people, Eritreans were forced to pay a specified sum, otherwise, they wouldn’t be entitled to consular services. The motives for the forced support were three-fold as the embassy and the consulate proclaimed: reviving the spirit of solidarity among Eritreans, fighting the pandemic, and reestablish self-reliance, which has become, according to the Embassy, a well-founded Eritrean social value. But what lurks behind the deceptive fanfare is naked coercion.

To avoid returning to their country which has become a giant incarceration camp, many had to send their families to Egypt and Sudan. The common arrangement is to leave the family’s breadwinner behind and send the rest abroad with a monthly remittance to help the families meet their needs especially rent, education, and treatment costs. Separation and its dreadful consequences are equal to family breaking.

Like the Syrians who can’t return to their country because of the war, the Eritreans have their founded fears of returning to their country, yet, many of those who have chosen to stay behind are not able to legalize their Iqama uneven situations.

By Fathi Osman