Illegal Yemeni immigrants in KSA: The journey back home [Archives:2008/1166/Reportage]

June 23 2008

Esra Al-Nsour
For The Yemen Times

More than 150 illegal Yemeni workers are deported from Saudi Arabia monthly. According to the immigrants themselves, they are returned to Yemen in batches of hundreds, sometimes reaching as many as 400 per month. They are usually poor young men between the ages of 12 and 30, who have a high school degree and come from rural areas.

They are smuggled along risky routes with the help of specialized individuals who take their commission before hand. Yemenis believe they'll find a better life there, but the reality is otherwise, as they live in continual fear of being caught.

“Every day was a living hell. We were always looking over our shoulders lest someone was coming around to check for IDs. Our freedom was limited, as we just went from work to home and then home to work,” recounts 16-year-old Waddah from Taiz who has been smuggled to Saudi Arabia and deported more than once.

“I know you'll think I'm crazy to go back again after that life, but the truth is that I need the money,” he explains.

Illegal Yemeni immigrants typically work as waiters in restaurants or as guards or cleaners at businesses. They are paid daily, but much less than the average citizen because they are illegal. Employers take advantage of their situation and their need, employing them for less money and no benefits.

“Yemenis help each other find jobs. We meet in common places and we tell each other if there's a need for workers in this place or that,” says Jalal Al-Abbadi, 30, who's been deported from Saudi Arabia after working there for over five months.

He's one such illegal Yemeni immigrant who traveled to Saudi Arabia looking for a better life. In Yemen, he was under much stress because he couldn't find a job and he must help his father raise 12 children.

Al-Abbadi traveled to Saudi Arabia, first crossing the desert by bus and then continuing by walking for two days without eating or drinking. When he finally arrived, some Yemenis he knew from before welcomed him and helped him find a job.

He first worked in Dammam, carrying boxes and many things at a farm belonging to a Saudi citizen. He got the job due to the need for many seasonal workers, so he was hired immediately, but at a low salary and long hours, working for Saudi Riyals 700 per month (approximately $175) from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and sleeping in a farm-affiliated camp with many other workers.

Al-Abbadi then moved to Riyadh to work in a factory. He spent three months in Saudi Arabia before police caught him after requesting his identity card while he was returning home after a long day's work. When they discovered that he was illegal, they imprisoned him in Dammam.

He says they abused him and called him bad names, also insulting him and his friends, who were caught the same day. After 12 days in Dammam and three days in Riyadh, they all were transported by bus to Bagha town on the Yemeni border where they were released or made to return to Yemen.

Constant fear

The illegal Yemeni community in Saudi Arabia consists of many individuals in the same circumstances, around the same age and with the same hopes. All are looking for jobs to help their families and trying their best not to get caught before sending enough money to their families back home.

Border police, immigration and passport police are the main bodies responsible for tracking down and catching illegal Yemeni workers in Saudi.

According to those Yemenis deported from KSA, police often hunt them down after recognizing that they are Yemenis from the way they look, dress or if they hear them speak.

They also are reported by residents in their neighborhoods who tell police about illegal immigrants residing in a certain place. Otherwise, the police conduct regular campaigns in places where Yemenis likely are working, such as factories or farms. The first thing police ask is for their identity card and residence permit. If they discover that someone is in Saudi Arabia illegally, they detain him, escort him to collect his belongings and jail him for between 12 and 15 days. Afterward, they're taken by bus to the Yemeni border where they're on their on their own.

Back home

Despite the circumstances under which they're deported, most of their families welcome their return and are happy to see them again.

Fifteen-year-old Ali's parents sent him to work in Saudi Arabia so he could help them with expenses. He was taken out of school and smuggled to Saudi where found a job in a packaging factory for SR 800 per month. He lived there six months before police discovered him. He returned home only for his parents sent him back again.

Another illegal immigrant who worked in construction in Saudi promised himself never to return due to the terrible conditions in which he lived.

However, most deported illegal immigrants don't find work in Yemen, so they're forced to return to Saudi Arabia due to their poverty and need for money.

For some, the whole experience is like an adventure, especially for the younger ones. It feels like an adventure and it's a story to tell others. Many boast about the dangers they encountered and how they survived, exchanging life lessons and experiences.

Making the choice

Not all illegal Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia are smuggled there. Some go for the Umrah pilgrimage and decide to stay behind. Others who go there and see the situation return home on their own, but illegally, as they must pay between SR 100 and 200 to be smuggled back into Yemen. Abdulaziz, 28, is one illegal immigrant who worked as a tailor in Saudi Arabia for 13 months, living a one-room apartment with more than six other people. Abdulaziz decided to return to Yemen because his freedom was limited. He couldn't go out or have fun with his friends because his world was limited to work and his apartment.

He paid SR 100 to a smuggler who deals with a Saudi center that helps illegal Yemeni immigrants return home. He walked for four hours until he arrived at the center, where he says they took everything from him, even the money he had saved up while working in Saudi, before they sent him on to the Yemeni border.

Abdulaziz had gone to Saudi Arabia to help his blind father raise his eight children because although he had an 87 percent high school average, he'd been unable to find work in Yemen.