Women migrant workers detained for months
At least 41 Sri Lankan domestic workers are currently detained at the Exit 18 Deportation Detention (Tarheel) Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia awaiting repatriation.
While the authorities have not disclosed the legal basis for the women’s detention, it is believed that many of the women have been detained due to their migration status under the notorious kafala system in place in Saudi Arabia. This includes reasons such as the expiration of their work permit and their employer’s failure to obtain an exit permit for them or because they have fled from an abusive employer.
The majority of the women wish to return to their home country in recent months. Prison officials as well as the Sri Lankan embassy officials in Riyadh have repeatedly promised the women that they will be repatriated imminently, however they are still in detention as of April 2021.
Domestic workers are among the most vulnerable group of migrant workers in the Gulf countries. Often isolated within homes and highly dependent on their employers in almost every aspect of their lives, they are also not covered by labour law protections across the Gulf including Saudi Arabia. They are at risk of being detained for overstaying their residence permits, often because their sponsors failed to renew it or because they fled abuse and exploitation. They usually face gruelling working conditions with many working long hours without breaks or days off.
They also frequently face verbal and physical abuse and have their passports regularly confiscated at the hands of abusive employers who act with impunity. Recent labour reforms in Saudi Arabia excluded domestic workers, meaning that they still cannot leave the country without the permission of their employers, which increases their vulnerability to abuses of their rights, including forced labour and physical and sexual assault.
The Sri Lankan and Saudi Arabia governments have obligations to protect migrant workers from abuse under a range of international treaties they have ratified, including the International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Convention. In this case they must ensure the urgent release from arbitrary detention and voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriations of all the affected women.