The Reporter (Addis Ababa)

Ethiopia: Why Violence Against Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia?

Photo: IOM
International Organisation for Migration assisting the Ethiopian government to manage influx of returnees from the Middle East.

In recent years the upsetting news of suicides, killings, beatings or violence and other inhumane acts have been everyday occurrences from the Gulf States in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular.

Now, on social media, it is becoming normal to read about the suicide or murder of Ethiopian maids in the Gulf States. The views of political commentators and social media users differ, some blame the Ethiopian government for not taking action, while others blame the Saudi government for a violation of the rights of migrant workers. Human traffickers are also accused of facilitating and promoting illegal migration, and the victims themselves are blamed for migrating illegally when they can find jobs in their home country. Whoever is responsible, the question remains, 'Why the violence against migrant workers in Saudi Arabia?'

Up to one million migrant workers have been deported from the kingdom in recent months, and more than 20,000 are currently detained awaiting repatriation. The situation is getting worse as the amnesty period the Saudi government set ended on November 03, after which the violence against migrant workers from Ethiopia and other countries turned into fully-fledged chaos. Three Ethiopian nationals and a Sudanese man have reportedly died at the hands of Saudi police as riots break out in the poor areas inhabited by migrant workers. The Ethiopian government has summoned the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Ethiopia to explain the death of the three Ethiopians and the beatings of many others. The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made it public that around 23,000 Ethiopians, who are currently struggling in detention centers, are registered through the Ethiopian embassy in Saudi Arabia for deportation back to their country. The process is underway, and by now (November 22) some 50,000 migrant workers have been deported.

The history of migrant workers in the Gulf States, and in particular the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, remains a contentious and paradoxical issue. Paradoxical in the sense that, from an economic viewpoint, not even the nationals can deny the indispensable role of foreign workers in a country with an acute shortage of local labor force. However, from the socio-cultural and political perspective, the influx of overseas workers is questioned as they are expected to join the society as economic objects, yet they bring their culture, social life and religious beliefs, which in most cases are different from the host society. Regarding the influx of overseas workers, be it good or bad, history tells us that since the discovery of oil, Saudi Arabia has employed a large expatriate labor force due to a shortage of local workers. Consequently, the number of foreigners both in the total population and workforce has increased significantly. According to a 2006 United Nations Secretariat report on international migration and development in the Arab region, in Saudi Arabia more than half of the workforce is comprised of foreign nationals.

This development has posed economic, social and cultural threats to the local population. As a result, to maintain the highly privileged position of the nationals, numerous restrictions have been imposed through the legislation of new labor laws. The current contradiction is one manifestation of these new laws. The Saudi government is enforcing the new legislation in the hope that reducing the number of illegal workers will create opportunities for Saudi job seekers, while rearranging the social composition of its society and protecting the purity of its culture. However, it seems that there is more to it than just a change of law.

It is not only breaking the law that has forced the Saudi government and public to act with unimaginable cruelty against the migrants. My doubts stem from the fact that what is now going on in the kingdom is far beyond law enforcement. What was thought to be simply an enforcement of labor law turned out to be a crackdown on migrant workers, involving the violation of human rights, women being raped, men beaten to death, property being confiscated and any mistreatment that can be mentioned.

There appear to be some explanations for the escalation of violence against migrant workers. First of all, the Saudi public has come to associate their economic hardship with the 'invasion of foreigners', as the government and media like to frame it. The official Saudi unemployment rate is 12 percent, but excludes a large number of citizens who say they are not seeking a job. However, critics argue that the source of the unemployment problem is not migrant workers, as the majority of the kingdom's nine million foreigners (typical example being Ethiopians) work as unskilled laborers or domestic workers, jobs usually shunned by the Saudis.

Here any rational man can understand that unless the local work force changes its attitude to the available jobs on the market, there is no way that migrant workers can be blamed for unemployment in the kingdom. Moreover, the critics add that an extravagant waste of resources and unproductive economic policy is what led to the growing rate of unemployment in this big Middle East country. Whether Ethiopian migrant workers are responsible or not for the economic hardships of Saudi nationals (for me they are absolutely not!), one of the driving forces that drag Saudis to conflict with migrant workers is this perceived invasion of migrant workers.

Moreover, in the Middle East in general and the Saudi Kingdom in particular, there is one dominant culture that is importantly and inextricably linked with Islam -- often referred to as the Arab or Islamic culture. It has been preserved over several centuries, and they now believe that it cannot be diluted with any alien cultures. It is like the people have got a weakness in accommodating diversity. Maybe I can call it 'diversity phobia!' Due to the inevitable evolution of social life things are attempting to dilute this culture, and show people alternative ways of living and different kinds of social relations.

There is no doubt that, in this globalized world, Arabs in the Kingdom are aware of this alternative way of living and other kinds of social relations which are incompatible with their customs and values. What makes the case different here is that what they were aware of from far, far away, now lives with them in their country, and even in their homes, which enables them to experience the differences on a daily basis. For them this has an element of cultural invasion!

They are even jealous of their housemaids, whom they believe may affect their children's beliefs and customs and help them become aware of a diversified world culture; they want the next generation to be kin with its predecessor and ignorant of foreign cultures. As I mentioned above, there is weakness of accommodating diversity in this part of the world, and due to this fact they can take it no more. They need their past back by getting rid of these alien migrants, and among the many ways of doing this they amazingly chose violence, which is supported and also practiced by the government. Generally, what I called 'diversity phobia', a tendency of zero tolerance against difference, promoted violence against migrant workers.

One last thing that I would like to mention here is what many in the Kingdom misperceived as the social evil that came into their country in the footsteps of the migrants -- crime. But one should ask, 'Is crime new to this part of the world?' Absolutely not! It is the birthplace of terrorism, and where human rights violations are more frequent than on any part of this planet. It is where raped women are punished through no fault of their own, and amazingly accused of misleading men into sin.

It is where men have the full right to beat their wives. These are the disgusting crimes of our age which remind us of the practices of maybe a century ago. The irony is that the kingdom presents itself as where social order was stable, but now is not so due to the mess caused by migrants. The intention of blame is apparent, they want to externalize the problem and justify their contentious policies which are not compatible to the social life of this modern globalized world. Externalizing the problem and then blaming migrants did not satisfy them to the extent they wanted, as a result they used this as a means to an end -- violence against migrants.

Ed.'s Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. 

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