Hibiscus with Ginger

Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia

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We seem to have disappeared for the past few weeks—largely because we got a bit more involved with schoolwork. At the same time, events in Sudan and South Sudan have continued politically and economically in largely the same way they’ve been going. In South Sudan, it turns out that Salva Kiir did in fact dissolve SPLM governing structures, a move that has caused a lot of criticism and will likely foster splits in the SPLM long-term. In Sudan, economic problems (including the availability and price of bread) have been pretty bad, and war has continued in South Kordofan.

One thing that has been in the news a lot throughout this month, with implications for much of East Africa, is the status of migrants in Saudi Arabia. In early November, Saudi Arabia began a crackdown on migrant labor, arresting and attempting to deport migrants whose current employers were not their sponsors on their immigration documents. This crackdown is part of a “Saudisation” campaign that seeks to increase the number of Saudis in the national workforce by making it more difficult for migrants to stay in the country.

In addition to kicking out undocumented workers, the Saudi government is seeking to deport workers whose visa sponsor is no longer their employer. This means that if a migrant has switched jobs but was unable to update his or her paperwork (whether because the new employer was unwilling to pay the money to be the new sponsor or because he or she had serious problems with the previous employer), he or she will no longer be able to stay in the country.

During the past six months, many have sought to leave the country because they are unable to update their paperwork. In mid-November, when police began to arrest people to begin deportations, resistance to the police prompted serious fighting, injuring many and killing several. Most of those attacked were Ethiopian, although at least some were Sudanese.

The Ethiopian diaspora has responded quite strongly to this violence, with protests around the world at Saudi Embassies, even though the Ethiopian government has prevented people in Ethiopia from demonstrating. At the same time, these deportations do not just affect Ethiopian communities—almost 12,000 Sudanese migrants will be deported this month, with many more likely to follow.

So why haven’t other communities protested to the same extent and why has most of the violence been concentrated in African communities? It’s not entirely clear. Threats of violence are present for all communities facing deportation. Racism might explain why police began the crackdown in African neighborhoods (rather than South Asian neighborhoods—many South Asians are being deported now as well), but that doesn’t explain why Ethiopian communities have drawn more attention to this issue.

Both Sudan and Ethiopia make a significant amount of money off of remittances from communities living in Saudi Arabia. Still, I wonder if the communities are slightly different. Sudanese migrants would have greater knowledge of and access to resources since they were educated in Arabic and thus are likely to be able to communicate with authorities better. While many Sudanese immigrants to Saudi Arabia work as laborers, others work as doctors and teachers, and this might have influenced Saudi authorities’ perceptions of the community (although plenty of Sudanese friends have commented that they experience racism in Saudi Arabia as well).

Of course, it might be something else entirely—the number of migrants, the political salience of this issue in the home country (it certainly seems like the Ethiopian diaspora is paying more attention than other communities), the willingness of migrants to protest, their relationship with their home countries… It also may be that Ethiopian migrants are just treated worse than other groups.

Regardless, this mass deportation will be quite important for Saudi Arabia as well as for all sending countries. In the past four months, nearly a million migrants have left Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government projects that it will deport another million in the next year. Certainly more migrants will come later, if immigration policy slackens again, but for now, many economies will be affected, and many communities will gain and (and lose) members they were not expecting. This will have an impact on the lives and livelihoods of many, long after the protests have died down.


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