RIYADH – As garbage piled in the Saudi streets, 23,000 Ethiopians have surrendered to Saudi authorities after a clampdown on illegal migrant workers began in the oil-rich kingdom last week, stirring clashes after frustrated workers took to the streets.
The clashes “occurred because the illegal workers were frustrated they did not have a way to surrender to the police,” Ambassador Mohammad Hassan Kabiera told the English-language Arab News daily, AFP reported on Thursday.
The workers took to the streets to voice their concerns, prompting “clashes with some youths in the neighborhood”, he said.
“We have been informed that so far about 23,000 Ethiopians have handed themselves in,” Kabiera said.
The Ethiopian workers’ surrender followed clashes earlier this week between police and Ethiopian migrants on Saturday that led to the deaths of three people in the poor Manfuhah neighborhood of Riyadh.
On Tuesday, Ethiopia said three of its citizens had died during clashes in the Gulf kingdom, without elaborating.
"The act of killing innocent civilians is uncalled for, we condemn that," Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told reporters, saying he had been informed of the death of three Ethiopian citizens.
The troubles followed the kingdom’s move to round up thousands of illegal workers starting from November 4, following the expiry of a final amnesty for them to formalize their status.
Among them were foreigners who overstayed their visas, pilgrims who had sought jobs, and migrants working under one sponsor trying to get jobs elsewhere.
Having an official sponsor is a legal requirement in Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf states.
Nearly a million migrants — Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Indians, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Yemenis among them — took advantage of the amnesty to leave.
Another roughly four million were able to find employers to sponsor them.
Expatriates account for a full nine million of the oil-rich kingdom’s population of 27 million.
Despite feeling the loss of the everyday work the foreign laborers provided, Saudis largely have cheered the campaign.
Al Riyadh daily quoted Prince Khalid as defending the campaign, saying it “does not target a specific group but all illegal” workers and residents.
“We will continue these campaigns until we ensure all residents in our country are staying legally,” he said.
Residents have taken matters into their own hands on several occasions, despite police calling on the public not to make citizen arrests.
Workers from neighboring Yemen also face harassment.
Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman posted a picture last week on her Facebook page of what appeared to be a Saudi man in his car grabbing hold of a Yemeni man for a police officer.
Fresh violence erupted in Riyadh’s Manfouha district later on Wednesday, resulting in the death of a Sudanese resident.
At least 17 expatriate workers were also reported injured as they clashed with local residents, police said.
On Wednesday, Saudi media quoted Riyadh governor Prince Khalid Bin Bandar Bin Abdul Aziz as saying that “casualties and deaths have not surpassed three Saudis and two foreigners”, again without giving details.
Saudi columnist Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed cautioned Saudis to remember that without “a strong state and oil revenues” they too may have emigrated in search of work.“Those deprived of the chance of a proper life can understand the feeling of those wanting to seek a better life,” he wrote in the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.