Saudi Arabia

Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Tier 3

Saudi Arabia is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and, to a lesser extent, forced prostitution. Men and women from countries in South Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, such as Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Burma, and Yemen, as well as many other countries voluntarily travel to Saudi Arabia as domestic workers or low-skilled laborers; many subsequently face involuntary servitude, experiencing nonpayment of wages, withholding of passports, confinement to the workplace, long working hours without rest, deprivation of food, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement. Sending-country embassies and consulates indicate that non-payment of wages is the most widespread complaint from foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. The foreign worker population is the most vulnerable to trafficking in Saudi Arabia, particularly female domestic workers, due to their isolation inside private residences. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that Saudi Arabia is one of the largest employers of domestic workers in the world; this sector has the highest average working hours in Saudi Arabia. Although many migrant workers sign contracts delineating their rights, some report work conditions that are substantially different from those described in the contract. Other migrant workers never see a contract at all, leaving them especially vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage. Some migrant workers voluntarily enter into illegal arrangements and pay a Saudi national to sponsor their residency permit while they seek freelance work, thus becoming vulnerable to possible extortion by their sponsors. Due to Saudi Arabia’s requirement that foreign workers receive permission from their employers to obtain an exit visa before they are legally able to leave the country, some migrant workers report that they are forced to work for months or years beyond their contract term because their employers will not grant them an exit permit; the government extended an amnesty from this provision to migrant workers between April and November 2013.

Some women, primarily from Asia and Africa, are believed to be forced into prostitution in Saudi Arabia. Some female domestic workers are reportedly kidnapped and forced into prostitution after running away from abusive employers. Children from Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chad, and Sudan are subjected to forced labor as beggars and street vendors in Saudi Arabia, facilitated by criminal gangs. A Saudi government study conducted in 2011 reported that most beggars in Saudi Arabia are Yemenis between the ages of 16 and 25. Migrants from Yemen and the Horn of Africa enter Saudi Arabia illegally via the border with Yemen; some of them may be trafficking victims. Some Saudi nationals engaged in sex tourism during the reporting period in various countries worldwide. The Saudi government did not report efforts to address child sex tourism by Saudi nationals abroad through any law enforcement efforts. Some Saudi men used legally-contracted “temporary marriages” as a means by which to sexually exploit young girls and women overseas in countries such as Egypt, India, Jordan, Mauritania, Yemen, and Indonesia.

The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. The government did not report prosecuting or convicting any trafficking offenders. Though the government identified and referred some victims to protection services, authorities identified fewer victims than in the previous reporting period. The government did not make systematic efforts to proactively identify trafficking victims among foreign migrants, runaway domestic workers, and vulnerable children. Some Saudi police and officials continued to arrest, detain, and sometimes charge runaway and illegal migrant workers who may be unidentified trafficking victims, while some police referred others to government-run camps for individuals being deported. During the government’s amnesty period and migrant round-ups, the government did not have a systematic process in place to identify victims of trafficking among the thousands of foreign migrants who were arrested, detained, and deported; however, it reportedly investigated some potential trafficking cases at detention and deportation centers. Moreover, some migrants—some of whom may be victims of trafficking—reported abuses at the hands of government authorities during the detention and deportation process. The sponsorship system, including the exit visa requirement, continued to restrict the freedom of movement of migrant workers and to hamper the ability of victims of trafficking to pursue legal cases against their employers. Though the government adopted new laws in 2013 that provide some protections for domestic workers, including establishing working hours and requiring direct wage payments into bank accounts, the new laws also provided that domestic workers cannot refuse to work if it is in their contract; this may increase domestic workers’ vulnerability to forced labor. Employers continued to regularly withhold workers’ passports without punishment as a means of keeping workers in forced labor, despite this practice being prohibited by law.

Recommendations for Saudi Arabia:

Significantly increase efforts to prosecute, punish, and stringently sentence trafficking offenders, including abusive employers and those culpable of sex trafficking, under the 2009 anti-trafficking law; significantly improve efforts to ensure that victims of trafficking are not punished for acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking, such as running away from abusive employers, immigration violations, or engaging in prostitution; institute a formal victim identification mechanism to identify trafficking victims among the thousands of workers deported each year for immigration violations and other crimes; improve victim protection at government-run centers by ensuring autonomy and freedom of movement, providing on-site interpreters, and respecting residents’ right to privacy; expand full labor protections to domestic workers; ensure that all victims of trafficking can seek assistance and protection services; reform the sponsorship system and enforce existing laws to discourage employers from withholding workers’ passports and restricting workers’ movements, including the denial of exit visas, as a means of preventing trafficking abuses; ensure trafficking victims are able to pursue criminal cases against their employers in practice; and continue to train government officials on identifying cases of forced labor and sex trafficking, and expand anti-trafficking public awareness campaigns.


The government’s law enforcement efforts against human trafficking declined. The 2009 Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons Act, promulgated by Royal Decree number M/40, defines and prohibits all forms of human trafficking, prescribing punishments of up to 15 years’ imprisonment and fines of up to the equivalent of approximately $266,700 for violations. Penalties may be increased under certain circumstances, including trafficking committed by an organized criminal group or committed against a woman, child, or person with disabilities, or if trafficking is committed by a law enforcement officer. These penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes. Since the law covers offenses that are broader than human trafficking, such as prostitution, the government would have to disaggregate law enforcement activity to determine which prosecutions and convictions are for trafficking. Although the anti-trafficking law does not address the withholding of passports and exit visas as means of obtaining or maintaining a person’s forced labor or service, the Council of Ministers’ Decision 166 of 2000 prohibits the practice of withholding workers’ passports as a separate, lesser offense. The government did not report efforts to enforce this decision, though reports indicate that the practice of withholding passports continued to be widespread. However, in late 2013, local media reported that dozens of Saudis were arrested for improper sponsorship under the new labor laws. Several of these reported arrests were made after November 2013 and involved travel agencies accused of sponsoring religious pilgrims with the intent to funnel them into the private sector for exploitative work; some of these pilgrims may have been subjected to human trafficking. The government reported difficulties in tracking and collecting law enforcement data in a timely manner due to slow bureaucratic processes, thus it did not provide law enforcement data for this reporting period. The government investigated an unspecified number of allegations of abusive employers of domestic workers in private homes and complaints of withholding workers’ passports. The government relied on foreign workers to make complaints of abuse, though many workers had minimal ability to communicate such complaints to authorities. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking. In January 2014, the Ministry of Labor (MOL) conducted a workshop for government officials on the implementation of new labor laws and how these laws will assist the government in combating human trafficking.


The government did not demonstrate overall progress in victim protection; it exhibited diminishing efforts in reporting on its efforts to identify and protect trafficking victims among vulnerable populations. Government officials continued to arrest, detain, deport, and sometimes prosecute victims of trafficking for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, particularly domestic workers who ran away from abusive employers and illegal foreign workers. The Saudi government acknowledged that victims of trafficking might be among those detained. Women arrested for prostitution offenses—some of whom may be unidentified victims of trafficking—faced prosecution and, if convicted, imprisonment or corporal punishment; however, in practice, non-Saudi offenders were either deported or held in detention before being deported. The government authorized an amnesty period from April to November 2013, allowing several million migrant workers to correct their residency and work status or leave the country without penalty; migrants who were unable to obtain their sponsors’ permission were granted an “exit visa” in order to leave the country legally during that period. After the amnesty, authorities initiated extensive round-ups of migrant workers, including some night raids on homes, arresting, detaining, and deporting workers. As of November 2013, the government deported nearly 400,000 foreign migrants from the country. An international organization identified some trafficking victims among the Ethiopians deported, while several hundred continued to be detained pending resolution of financial disputes with their sponsors or correction of their residency status. Authorities made limited attempts to screen for and identify trafficking victims among this vulnerable population during the amnesty and deportation periods. An international organization and NGO in Ethiopia identified and assisted 87 Ethiopian trafficking victims who were deported from Saudi Arabia during this timeframe. Furthermore, migrant workers, international organizations, foreign embassies, and the media reported lengthy detentions for some of the migrant workers, poor quality of detention facilities, and some instances of abuse of migrants, such as physical beating, during the detention and deportation process; some workers were reportedly exploited by unscrupulous employers and that officials within the Saudi Passport Directorate accepted bribes to more quickly issue some migrant workers’ passports and residency permits than others. Some labor-sending countries reported that a small fraction of the migrant workers who arrived in the Kingdom illegally were unable to take advantage of the amnesty to legalize their work status, thus they remained highly vulnerable to trafficking.

While victim identification screening was not incorporated into the tens of thousands of deportations, the anti-trafficking secretariat distributed victim identification criteria, established by the UNODC, to the Ministry of Social Affairs and law enforcement officials and trained officials how to use the victim identification criteria. However, the government did not implement procedures to systematically identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable populations, such as foreign migrants, domestic workers, and women in prostitution. As a result, some victims of trafficking who overstayed their visas, fled their employers, or otherwise violated the legal terms of their visas were sometimes jailed without being identified as victims. In smaller cities in Saudi Arabia with poor access to such facilities, victims of trafficking were kept in jails until their cases were resolved. Some Saudi employers refused to permit foreign workers exit visas to leave the country, which resulted in workers working beyond their contract terms and against their will or languishing in detention centers for long periods of time.

However, the amnesty period also provided other workers the opportunity to escape abusive or unscrupulous employers. Some employers filed false counter claims against foreign workers for theft in retaliation for workers’ claims of abuse. The government identified 35 victims of trafficking in 2012—the most recent statistics available—which was a decrease from the 51 victims identified in the previous reporting period. Sixteen of the 35 victims were under the age of 18; seven of these children were victims of sex trafficking. The government reported that it referred some of these victims to shelters and facilitated the return of others to their country of origin, in coordination with the Ministries of Social Affairs, Interior, and Health to provide various services to victims.

In the absence of adequate protection services, many victims of trafficking continued to seek refuge at their embassies. Source-country diplomatic missions reported handling thousands of complaints of unpaid wages, physical or sexual abuse, and poor working conditions experienced by their citizens in Saudi Arabia each year; most of these complaints were for unpaid wages. There were no specialized shelters for victims of sex trafficking or male trafficking victims. The government continued to operate shelters for child beggars in various cities in the country, as well as a welfare center for female runaway domestic workers in Riyadh. These facilities reportedly provided accommodation and social, psychological, and health services to victims of trafficking during investigations or court proceedings. The welfare center’s staff made no systematic efforts to identify trafficking victims among residents seeking assistance at the center. The movements of women in the center were restricted, as was their communication with family and consular contacts. In addition, women may not have been given access to on-site interpreters and may have been subjected to male staff walking into their living quarters with no acknowledgement that this may be a violation of the women’s privacy. Some government officials did not view runaway domestic workers as potential victims of trafficking.

In July 2013, the Council of Ministers issued Decision No. 310 governing the work relationship between employers and domestic workers, which included the creation of a dispute mechanism for the settlement and adjudication of financial claims and imposed financial penalties and suspension of expatriate recruitment rights on employers violating the law. In August 2013, the Council of Ministers issued a decision that criminalized domestic violence and abuse, including abuse directed against domestic workers. Both of these laws outlined plans for providing emergency support, temporary shelter, and legal recourse to domestic workers whose employers abused them or violated the terms of their contracts. Though the domestic worker law sets maximum working hours and requires direct payment of wages into bank accounts, it also provides that domestic workers cannot refuse work if it is in their contract, which increased domestic workers’ vulnerability to forced labor. Few migrants successfully pursued criminal cases against abusive employers due to lengthy delays in the immigration and justice system. Trafficking victims were reportedly given the option to remain in the country—either in protective custody or working for a new employer—during judicial proceedings, or they could request an immediate exit visa; these benefits were not linked to the successful outcome of a prosecution of their trafficker. The anti-trafficking secretariat worked with the Ministry of Interior to extend the residency permits of such victims of trafficking on a case-by-case basis. It is unclear if victims received these benefits or if the government encouraged victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenders.


The government made some progress in preventing human trafficking, but systemic problems resulting from regulations of the sponsorship system persisted. The anti-trafficking secretariat was the main body responsible for coordinating the government’s anti-trafficking efforts and includes representatives from various ministries; the Bureau for Investigation and Prosecution joined the committee in this reporting period. The anti-trafficking secretariat continued to give media interviews in Arabic-language press acknowledging trafficking, particularly forced labor. In 2013, the secretariat also began preparing a biannual report about the situation of trafficking in the country, which would focus on raising awareness within the government about trafficking. As mandated in the anti-trafficking law, the government updated a national anti-trafficking action plan, which aims to monitor trafficking in the country, provide protection to victims, prevent trafficking, and develop inter-ministerial coordination to combat trafficking. In December 2013, the MOL announced that labor recruiters and brokers that fraudulently hire foreign workers would be prosecuted under the anti-trafficking law. During the government’s post-amnesty period in late 2013, local media reported that eight Saudi nationals were detained for illegally bringing workers into the country for work; however, the details of these cases were unclear. The government continued to implement regulations mandating the formation of new unified recruitment companies. In 2013, the government began requiring that companies with more than 1,000 employees and individual employers pay all foreign migrant workers through bank transfers, thereby allowing independent verification of timely and complete wage payments; migrant workers were also issued bank accounts and ATM cards. In March 2014, the government established a new online portal which provides domestic workers and employers information about their legal rights, as well as a helpline for information about the new labor laws and resources for labor dispute courts and domestic abuse support services. To increase workers’ awareness of their rights, the MOL continued to produce a guidebook distributed to all migrant workers entering the country in Arabic, English, and some source country languages; these guidebooks also contained a telephone number for workers to report abuse. Additionally, Saudi police maintained a 24-hour emergency anti-trafficking hotline with operators who spoke Arabic and English, though it was unclear how many victims were identified through this hotline. The government took actions to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts and forced labor. The government did not report efforts to address child sex tourism by Saudi nationals abroad through any law enforcement efforts. Saudi law does not have extraterritorial coverage to prosecute Saudi nationals who commit sex tourism crimes outside of Saudi Arabia.