LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human rights campaigners voiced concerns on Sunday that undocumented migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are being detained in squalid conditions, beaten and deported to countries where their lives could be at risk in a crackdown on foreign workers.
Saudi authorities began a nationwide campaign in 2013 to deport foreigners working illegally or outside of sponsorship rules as part of labor market reforms aimed at reducing unemployment among its own citizens.
The move also came as Britain and the United States raised alleged cases of forced labor among some nine million migrant workers - of which two million are estimated to be undocumented - in the conservative Muslim state of 28 million people.
But the campaign to identify and deport irregular migrant workers has raised concerns about their treatment, with the UK government urging Riyadh to work with countries and specialist agencies to manage the return and resettlement of migrants.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its report that dozens of workers who were deported to Somalia and Yemen reported receiving little food or water, no medical care and being regularly beaten while detained.
"There were 300 people in the same jail cell, one on top of another," Nagi, a 57-year-old Yemeni from Aden, told HRW.
A series of emails, phone calls and text messages to Saudi officials in Riyadh and to the Saudi Embassy in London over four days were not returned for comment.
HRW said undocumented migrants are not allowed to challenge their deportation or apply for asylum, leaving them powerless to avoid being returned to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened,
Many migrant workers who flee abusive employers and seek other work become undocumented under Saudi Arabia's sponsorship system, which bans migrants from changing jobs or leaving the country without their employer's permission, HRW said.
Police have carried out raids on businesses and residential areas in the deportation campaign, the rights group said.
Saudi authorities said they deported over 400,000 migrants in the first six months of the crackdown, and confirmed that 300,000 migrant workers were deported in the five months to March this year, an average of 2,000 a day, according to HRW.
"In seeking to enforce its labor laws, Saudi Arabia needs to be aware that these same laws sometimes encourage abuses that lead workers to become undocumented," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East and North Africa director.
"Saudi Arabia will never solve the problem of informal work until it fixes its labor system to root out long-term systemic abuses," Whitson said in a statement.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Tim Pearce