Hanif Hasan is a 25-year-old Rohingya Muslim living in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. He has been unemployed for two years and hasn’t left home for a month, fearing arrest.
“It’s hard even to breathe here,” Hasan says. “Every moment feels like it might be the last.”
On November 15, the Saudi Interior Ministry launched a plan to supervise what it calls illegal labor migrants. Enforcement of the plan, Homeland Without Illegal Expatriates, began after a six-month grace period during which the migrants could return to their countries of origin without being fined.
At least 250,000 Rohingya are living in the kingdom, according to the Rohingya Media Center, which helps members of the community in Saudi Arabia. Around 60 percent received special IDs letting them travel and work in the country. Given their persecution in their home country Myanmar, the undocumented Rohingya find themselves in a dilemma. They could languish in Saudi jails or go home to danger in a country that does not recognize them.
Hasan fled Myanmar with five other men and two women. They reached Saudi Arabia by plane from Dhaka, Bangladesh. He passed through border control with a Bangladeshi passport.
After clearing immigration, as the group walked toward the exit waiting area, a man – the partner in Saudi Arabia of the man who got him the Bangladeshi passport – ordered them to hand over their passports. Three of the men fled; the man confiscated the remaining five passports.
“I begged him not to take away my passport,” Hasan says. “He told us he’d give it back later. I offered him 1,000 riyals [$267] on the spot if he didn’t take my passport. He didn’t listen.”
Shortly after arriving, Hasan started work at a local bookstore. The store had eight employees, six of them from Myanmar working without iqama (residence permits). At first the authorities weren’t terribly strict, but after a year police visits to the bookstore became more frequent and Hasan was fired.
“If [the owner] had been caught, he would have had to pay a heavy fine and I would have been sent to jail. I don’t blame him,” Hasan says.
The police aim to catch immigrants with no iqama, or expired ones. Their ultimate aim is to scale back the shadow economy and reduce unemployment, part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy.
Employers have to handle the iqama paperwork for their Rohingya employees.
The journey through Bangladesh
Hasan left Myanmar in 2012, crossing the border into Bangladesh one rainy night in a group of 15 Rohingya. They reached the coastal city of Chittagong and in little time realized how hard it would be to find even odd jobs.
“They look at our faces and spit,” he says. “You try talking to them and they swear at you.” He wanted to go home to Myanmar but his mother told him that the situation in his hometown in the country’s western Rakhine state was just getting worse.
Hasan lost three of his aunts in Rakhine during the two years he remained in Chittagong. One died in her eighth month of pregnancy. The other two suffered from chills but the doctor refused to examine them because they were Muslim.
“My 30-year-old aunt was eight months pregnant and had a stomach ache since the morning. There was no big medical facility in the village so my brothers took her to the nearest one outside the village,” he says.
“By mid-afternoon the doctors admitted her and gave her an injection. Her condition was only getting worse so they brought her back home. Later when the village doctor came to see her he told our family that she wouldn’t survive. The doctors at the hospital had injected her with poison.”
In 2014, through an agent in his madrassa (religious school) in Chittagong, Hasan heard about a Myanmar family going to Saudi Arabia. The next day he boarded a bus for Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. When the bus reached the city, two policemen got on, looking for Rohingya.
“The policeman asked why I was going Dhaka ... He only let me go when I gave him my address in Chittagong,” Hasan says.
To get Hasan to Saudi Arabia, the agent in Dhaka demanded a fee equivalent to about $5,900, plus $240 to obtain the Bangladeshi passport – about five times the normal charge. Two weeks later the agent escorted his group of eight Myanmar citizens to Dhaka’s Shahjalal International Airport.
“He handed us all our passports and tickets and left without a word,” Hasan says.
‘These ID cards are useless’
Hasan says he has contacted the agent’s partner many times in the two years he has been in Saudi Arabia and asked for his passport. At first he was told it would be returned. But now “he tells me to stop calling,” Hasan says. “He tells me that his job was only to get me [to Saudi Arabia]. I want to be legal here. Where do I go? I belong to no country.”
According to a human rights activist based in Saudi Arabia working for Rohingya rights in the kingdom, “thousands of Rohingya got blacklisted for not working under Saudi sponsors’ low-salary policy.”
As the activist puts it, “Now these ID cards are useless and the men are just sitting at home. Their wives and daughters have to work to earn a livelihood instead of the men. More than 150,000 of these Rohingya have no passports and can’t travel.”
The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, estimates that over 600,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since August. Statelessness, which can deprive someone of a normal life and hope for the future, remains a problem.
Some 10 percent of the world’s stateless people live in Myanmar, and the Muslims in Rakhine are the largest stateless community in the world, the UNCHR said in a report on Rakhine published in August.