Blog post by Charlotte Lysa, a Research Fellow at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo (UiO). She was previously a Postdoc on the project “REF-ARAB: Refugees and the Arab Middle East: Protection in States Not Party to the Refugee Convention”, at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, UiO and holds a PhD in Middle East Studies (2019).
Saudi Arabia is often accused of not hosting any refugees. Nevertheless, within the borders of the Saudi state there are a large number of people are likely to be de-facto refugees, despite not being recognized as such by Saudi authorities. The publicly available results of the 2022 census – for the first time including population statistics on nationality – shed new light on the number of potential refugees in Saudi Arabia, and by extension on Saudi refugee policies.
Counting refugees in the absence of reliable statistics
Scholars of migration to the Gulf Cooperation states (GCC) have long struggled with the lack of official statistics on nationality in the member states of the GCC – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia has usually published estimates on the numbers of Saudi citizens and the non-Saudi population, but statistics have not been broken down on a nationality level. Attempts have been made at estimating the number of migrants of different nationalities and of the number of refugees based on figures available, such as in media statements by authorities. The number of Syrians in Saudi Arabia, for example, has long been debated in the context of criticism towards Saudi Arabia for not doing its part in hosting Syrian refugees. Estimates from 2015 on the number of Syrians in Saudi Arabia varied rom 500 000 and up to one million, with one official stating that Saudi Arabia had hosted as many as 2,5 million Syrians since the outbreak of the crisis. The 2022 census puts the number of Syrians currently residing in the Kingdom well below previous estimates, but due to less favorable policies for foreigners implemented it is also likely that the number of Syrian residents has decreased in recent years.
On its side, Saudi Arabia has since 2018 claimed that around 5% of the total population are refugees. This number is based on the number of Syrian, Yemeni and Rohingya that have received some kind of assistance by authorities based on their belonging to these nationalities or ethnic groups, such as legalizing their stay in the absence of a valid residency permit. In other words, a form of ad-hoc, case-to-case basis refugee policy. This number comes from a soft recognition of these people as refugees, not based on an individual assessment but rather on a combination of the need for assistance and belonging to a certain group. The number of individuals within the Kingdom who would be entitled to a refugee status had Saudi Arabia followed definitions in international law is likely to be higher.
What the numbers show and what they don’t
Among other reasons – such as the Palestinian refugee issue – Saudi Arabia’s geographical proximity to conflict areas have been highlighted as a reason for the country’s lack of domestic asylum laws and its unwillingness to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, as the newly published statistics illustrate there are very high numbers of people originating from conflict areas already present in the country. Among the ten countries from which the most refugees under UNHCR’s mandate originate (2022), six are represented with large communities in Saudi Arabia: Syria (number 1), Afghanistan (3) Myanmar (5), Sudan (7), Somalia (8) and Eritrea (10). According to the 2022 Saudi census the number of Sudanese is 816 600, Syrian 449 300, Afghanis 132 300, Myanmar 163 700, Eritreans 47 300 and Somalis 45 700. There are also 1 814 700 people of Yemeni nationality in Saudi Arabia, the fourth largest migrant population with 11% of the total number of migrants, as well as 129 900 Palestinian nationals.
While these numbers shed new light on the presence of people in Saudi Arabia who might be refugees, they do not tell the whole story. As the majority of these people are governed as temporary labor migrants (despite that many of Saudi Arabia’s “migrants” have resided in the country for decades) there is no way of knowing for sure if they would be entitled to a formal refugee status or if they would even seek one. Moreover, the question of Palestinian refugees is particularly complicated and it is not clear how these are counted, but the total number of people of Palestinian origin is likely higher: between 2001 and 2008 for example, UNHCR included in its statistics 240 000 Palestinians in Saudi Arabia. Many Palestinians in Saudi Arabia hold travel documents from a third country, such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria – all represented with a high number in the country according to the census.
Another such case is the Rohingya, often referred to as “the Burmese” in Saudi Arabia. Authorities stated in 2017 that it has issued special residency permits to 250 000 Rohingya, a number higher than the total number of individuals from Myanmar in the country. Many Rohingya arrived in the Kingdom with travel documents from third countries such as India, Pakistan and – in particular – Bangladesh. Among the Rohingya population, many are born in Saudi Arabia and descendants of those arriving several generations ago. Saudi authorities have a certain leverage over countries such as Bangladesh due to the very large number of nationals working in Saudi Arabia and the remittances they send back home – and have been pushing for Bangladesh to accept members of the Rohingya in Saudi Arabia as Bangladeshi to be transferred to Bangladesh.
Saudi Arabia and refugee law
What is clear beyond doubt is that there are many – likely hundreds of thousands – of individuals in Saudi Arabia that would be entitled to asylum in accordance with international law. This is fundamental to acknowledge in any serious discussion on Saudi Arabia and its lack of commitment to formal and binding refugee and asylum law – either on a domestic or international level. A concern that adopting refugee and asylum law can contribute to a significant number of people being entitled to rights and a form of permanent residency is certainly not exceptional but rather common in non-signatory states hosting large numbers of refugees. This is important to keep in mind also, for example, when discussing Saudi Arabia’s motivations for engaging in the conflict in Sudan as a mediator and facilitator for discussions among the parties – considering the very significant presence of Sudanese in the Kingdom.
Another point worth noting is the inclusion of migration as a main category in the census material. This is certainly interesting in itself as Saudi Arabia has historically rejected the terms migrant and migration as labels for its foreign population based on its perceived notion of permanency – insisting that any stay in the Kingdom is strictly temporary. This follows a shift in recent years from Saudi Arabia’s terminology of refugees as “guests” and “visitors”, denying that there are any “refugees” in the country – to loudly claiming that 5% of the population are refugees. The claim was also followed by publicly available information on assistance provided to the groups included. While there is still information not publicly available relating to refugees in Saudi Arabia, this development is certainly welcomed and will hopefully continue. Availability of more information forms a crucial foundation for future discussions on Saudi refugee policies as well as advocacy for and engagement with refugee and asylum law in Saudi Arabia.
Janmyr, Maja. “No Country of asylum:‘Legitimizing’Lebanon’s rejection of the 1951 refugee convention.” International Journal of Refugee Law 29.3 (2017): 438-465.
Janmyr, Maja and Lysa, Charlotte. “Saudi Arabia and the International Refugee Regime” International Journal of Refugee Law (forthcoming 2023)
Lysa, Charlotte (2022). “Governing Refugees in Saudi Arabia (1948-2022)” Refugee Survey Quarterly doi: 10.1093/rsq/hdac027
Valenta, Marko, and Jo Jakobsen. “Mixed migrations to the Gulf: An empirical analysis of migrations from unstable and refugee-producing countries to the GCC, 1960–2015.” Refugee Survey Quarterly 36.2 (2017): 33-56.
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