Why Syrians in Saudi Arabia are choosing jail over deportation

Empty prison cell
7 min read
18 November, 2021
In-depth: Syrians detained in Saudi Arabia for failing to renew their residency permits or for 'abscondment' are choosing to remain imprisoned for years rather than face the terrifying prospect of being deported to Syria.

Syrians are being detained in Saudi Arabia for failing to renew their residency permits, or for "absconding" from their sponsors linked to Saudi Arabia's notorious kafala system.

An investigation by Al-Araby Al-JadeedThe New Arab's sister publication, sheds light on the desperate cases of those choosing to remain detained for years rather than face deportation to Syria, and those who have been lucky enough – a minority – to secure transferral to a third country.

Qasim Al-Hindi Al-Barghouth, a Syrian who has lived in Saudi Arabia since 2012, had two choices after being detained in a centre belonging to the General Department of Expatriate Affairs in Mecca. He could either pay for his own deportation to Syria, or he could remain in detention indefinitely, after his sponsor filed a complaint against him on 8 October 2019, claiming he had absconded.

Al-Barghouth's sponsor filed the abscondment report after they argued about the profits of a décor company Al-Barghouth had established. He says his sponsor wanted 75% instead of the 25% originally agreed. Labour law in Saudi Arabia meant the company had to be registered in Al-Barghouth's sponsor's name: Royal Decree No.51 (2005) bars non-Saudis from employment without a work permit from the Ministry of Labour.

"Syrians are being detained in Saudi Arabia for failing to renew their residency permits, or for 'absconding' from their sponsors, linked to Saudi Arabia's notorious kafala system"

These are often difficult to obtain and many non-Saudi immigrants will therefore find Saudi sponsors to facilitate the establishment of a business or employment in the country in line with private agreements between the two parties. Al-Barghouth was detained for eighteen months before he agreed to be deported to Erbil in Kurdistan, Iraq. He had refused deportation to Syria.

Syrian detainees in Saudi Arabia on the rise

Saber Mohammed (not his real name) rejects the term "prisoner" for himself and others in his position, emphasising that they are not criminals. They are imprisoned due to Saudi labour regulations, where workers may be detained if they are late renewing residency permits. In his case, he was unable to afford the renewal fees.

"Since 2014, the number of Syrians incarcerated in Saudi Arabia has been increasing, as growing numbers of Syrians in the country are unable to fulfil residency regulations because the ongoing conflict prevents them accessing essential documents and ID papers," says Jamil Daghestani, head of the Syrian community in Saudi Arabia.

Assad poster [Getty]
Rights groups warn against the return of refugees to Syria because of the lack of guarantees that they will not be imprisoned, tortured, forcibly disappeared, or forced to join the army. [Getty]

He says that the Syrian National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces formed a committee to tackle the issue at the Kingdom's request in late 2014. However, they were unable to solve the crisis, and the number of residency regulation violations keeps rising. The fee hikes for residency permits in 2017 have only exacerbated the problem, according to Daghestani.

Although official statistics are lacking, our investigator estimated based on data and testimonies that around 1,500 Syrians were detained in July 2021. Detention periods could be up to three years, and in some cases more.

Abscondment reports

Abscondment reports ("huroob") are a major cause of detention in Saudi Arabia. For instance, Mohammed Al-Qadimi moved to Saudi Arabia in 2011, and opened a car showroom in Dammam. However, having been unable to obtain an investor's visa, he had decided to lease the corporate licence of a company in the city. In accordance with the leased licence, he paid SAR 60,000 ($16,000) annually to store his cars in warehouses belonging to the Saudi Arabian licence holder.

"Deportation is one of the main punishments meted out to foreign violators of Saudi regulations. However, many refuse deportation to Syria and choose instead to remain detained indefinitely"

Later, rising tensions with the licence holder's family led Al-Qadimi to request that the cars be removed from the warehouses. He was then notified that an abscondment report had been filed against him, on 27 March 2018. It had been filed by the company owner's son who alleged that Al-Qadimi had worked for him as a labourer in Hafar al-Batin and had run away. This warranted his arrest.

The abscondment accusation led to the suspension of Al-Qadimi's bank account, and all the assets he had stored in the warehouses were transferred to the company owner in accordance with the leased licence regulations.

Ignorance of the law

Syrian lawyer Adnan Al-Hussein is a regional consultant to the Human Rights Commission in Saudi Arabia. He believes that ignorance of the law is often a complicating factor in these cases. He says that the Labour Law does allow those accused of abscondment to challenge the claim - they are given 15 days to refute it and submit evidence in their defence.

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If they fail to do this, another 15 days are allowed for a fee of SAR 2,000 ($533). If they do nothing and the second period ends, the violation is transferred to the General Directorate of Expatriate Affairs. Then, all services, including bank account access, are suspended and an arrest warrant is issued.

Al-Hussein adds that it is still possible to resolve the situation at this stage through a settlement process with the sponsor. If they withdraw the report and a fine is paid, the worker will be released.

However, Al-Qadimi says these procedures were not followed in his case. Upon hearing about the abscondment report, he went to the Labour Office in Hafar al-Batin to submit evidence proving his innocence, including the notarised contract for the lease of the car showroom in Dammam, and official papers confirming his workplace was in Dammam and not Hafar al-Batin (which he had never even visited).

When this was unsuccessful, he submitted a complaint to the Public Prosecution on 12 September 2019, but it was frozen. Al-Qadimi then sent complaints to the head of the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the governor of the Eastern Province on 14 January 2020 requesting that his case be investigated.

However, the outcome, according to his testimony, was that security forces broke into his home in the middle of the night on 14 January 2020, terrifying his four children before violently beating him and his wife.

"Deportation to Syria violates international law which prohibits 'refoulement' - returning refugees to war zones"

After the raid, Al-Qadimi was arrested and transferred to Khobar prison and his wife and children were detained in a centre for beggars in Dammam. However, the Saudi judiciary rejected the case against him on 10 September 2020. The family were deported to Erbil on 9 January 2021.

Detention vs deportation: The detainees' dilemma

Deportation is one of the main punishments meted out to foreign violators of Saudi regulations. However, many refuse deportation to Syria and choose instead to remain detained indefinitely. This was what Al-Barghouth did, remaining in detention for over a year before he was given the option of deportation to Sudan.

This followed a decision from the king in March 2020 to temporarily release prisoners to ease the strain on prisons and curb the spread of Covid-19. Thanks to this, some Syrian detainees who had refused deportation to Syria could pick a third country that would accept them.

Al-Barghouth managed to secure an entry visa for Sudan alongside 14 others from the same centre. Twenty were deported to Erbil and just four agreed to return to Syria, he says.

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However, Ahmad Abdul Khaliq has been detained for two years in Riyadh and stresses that many detainees want to be sent to a third country but face barriers such as difficulties accessing required documentation and prohibitive travel and visa costs.

Many Syrians wanted by the regime or wanted for reserve duty refuse deportation to Syria. However, even if they are not wanted, this doesn't protect them from risk.

Detainee Saber Mohammed's family returned to Damascus last year. His siblings and their children had lived in Saudi Arabia for twenty years but returned to Syria for their children to go to university. None of them were wanted by the regime.

However, they were arrested at the border, taken to a security branch in Damascus, threatened and blackmailed, until they agreed to pay a large sum and were released 28 days later. Amnesty International published a report on 7 September 2021 titled: 'You’re going to your death', which documented horrific violations perpetrated by Syria's security services against 66 returnees, including 13 children.

In a report published on 2 January 2021, the Syrian Network for Human Rights warned against the return of Syrian refugees to Syria because of the absence of guarantees that they will not be imprisoned, tortured, forcibly disappeared, or forced to join the army.

The report documented 156 cases of arrest of returnees in 2020. Director Fadel Abdul Ghany emphasised that deportation to Syria violates international law which prohibits 'refoulement' - returning refugees to war zones - pointing out that every Syrian who fears return to their country, which is still a conflict zone, is legally a refugee, with all the protections this status confers.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko