Trafficking in Persons Report 2016 - Country Narratives - Saudi Arabia

SAUDI ARABIA: Tier 2 Watch List

Saudi Arabia is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and, to a lesser extent, forced prostitution. Men and women primarily from South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa voluntarily migrate to Saudi Arabia as domestic workers, including men who work in private residences as gardeners, handymen, and cleaners, or low-skilled laborers; some of these workers face involuntary servitude. Some migrants are fraudulently recruited to work in Saudi Arabia or in other countries in the region and forced into domestic servitude. Non-payment of wages is the most common complaint from foreign workers in the Kingdom, while employers withholding workers’ passports remains a widespread problem. The foreign worker population is the most vulnerable to trafficking in Saudi Arabia, particularly female domestic workers due to their isolation inside private residences. An international organization estimated in 2013 that Saudi Arabia is one of the largest employers of domestic workers in the world, a sector with the highest average working hours. Some domestic workers experience severe mental, physical, and sexual abuse by their employers. Some foreign citizens who have experienced indicators of trafficking have been placed on death row. Due to Saudi Arabia’s requirement under its sponsorship or kafala system that foreign workers obtain an exit visa from their employers to leave the country legally, some are forced to work for months or years beyond their contract term because their employers will not grant them an exit permit. Although many migrant workers sign contracts with their employers, some report work conditions substantially different from those described in the contract; other workers never see a work contract at all. Some migrant workers voluntarily enter into illegal arrangements and pay a Saudi citizen to sponsor their residence permit while they seek freelance work, thus becoming vulnerable to possible extortion by their sponsors. Some women are believed to be forced into prostitution in Saudi Arabia. After running away from abusive employers, some female domestic workers are kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Criminal gangs subject children from Yemen to forced labor as beggars and street vendors. Migrants from Yemen and the Horn of Africa enter Saudi Arabia illegally—sometimes with the help of smugglers—via the Yemeni border; some of them may be trafficking victims. Some Saudi citizens engaged in sex tourism abroad, and there were media reports that some Saudi men traveled abroad to find brides—some of whom were legal minors—including through the use of legally contracted “temporary marriages.”

The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Despite these measures, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing anti-trafficking efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore, Saudi Arabia is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year. The government reported increased efforts convicting trafficking offenders, but the number of offenders prosecuted declined compared with the previous reporting period. Moreover, the government did not proactively investigate and prosecute employers for potential labor trafficking crimes involving their withholding of workers’ wages and passports, which remained a widespread practice throughout the Kingdom. Nonetheless, in December 2015, the Ministry of Labor (MOL) opened a specialized anti-trafficking unit to liaise with relevant authorities to protect migrant workers and train labor inspectors on victim identification. Although the government identified an increased number of trafficking victims and continued to provide protection services to some, its efforts to identify proactively and protect victims among vulnerable populations, including illegal foreign migrants, female and male domestic workers, and women in prostitution, remained uneven. The government continued to arrest, detain, and deport potential trafficking victims—particularly illegal foreign workers and domestic workers who fled their employers—a problem exacerbated by authorities’ lack of systematic identification and referral efforts. The government continued efforts to prevent trafficking.


Continue efforts to prosecute, convict, punish, and stringently sentence trafficking offenders, including abusive employers, under the anti-trafficking law; vigorously investigate for potential trafficking crimes employers who withhold workers’ passports and wages and restrict workers’ movement, and adequately punish these employers under the anti-trafficking law; reform the sponsorship system and ensure trafficking victims are able to pursue criminal cases against their employers in practice; significantly improve efforts to ensure victims among vulnerable populations, including domestic workers, illegal foreign migrants, male victims, and persons in prostitution, are not punished for acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking; implement a formal victim identification mechanism to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations; ensure all victims of trafficking can seek assistance and protection services; continue to train government officials on identifying cases of forced labor and sex trafficking; and conduct country-wide public awareness campaigns on all forms of trafficking.


The government demonstrated some improvement in its law enforcement efforts against trafficking. The 2009 Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons Act defines and prohibits all forms of human trafficking. The act prescribes punishments of up to 15 years’ imprisonment and financial penalties, which may be increased under certain circumstances, including trafficking committed by an organized criminal group or against a woman, child, or person with disabilities. These penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The Council of Ministers’ Decision 166 prohibits withholding workers’ passports as a separate, lesser offense; however, the government did not report efforts to enforce this decision. In 2015, the government amended the labor law to impose financial penalties for employers who withhold workers’ passports, do not provide workers with contracts, or force workers to perform jobs not otherwise stipulated in the work contract; however, these reforms excluded domestic workers, and the government did not report implementing these amendments by penalizing employers for these violations during the reporting period.

The government reported its investigation of 283 trafficking suspects from October 2014 to October 2015, some of which occurred outside of the current reporting period, as the Saudi system keeps records according to the hijri calendar. These investigations involved forced labor, sexual exploitation, and slavery crimes. In that same timeframe, it prosecuted and convicted 243 offenders under the anti-trafficking law; this demonstrated a decrease in prosecutions but an increase in convictions, in comparison to the previous reporting period. Nevertheless, the government did not report the punishment and sentences for the convicted perpetrators. The government did not report investigating potential trafficking crimes involving employers or recruiters withholding foreign workers’ passports or wages or other labor law violations. During the reporting period, authorities did not report prosecuting an employer who allegedly amputated the hand of an Indian domestic worker after the worker reportedly complained of poor working conditions in October 2015. In October 2015, Saudi police reportedly cooperated with Indonesian authorities to investigate and inspect an illegal facility housing 39 Indonesian women fraudulently recruited and forced into domestic servitude in Riyadh; Indonesian authorities reported at least one individual was arrested during the inspection, but the Saudi government did not report additional details of this case. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses. The government invoked the diplomatic immunity and recalled one of its diplomats accused of forcibly holding and raping two Nepali domestic workers while posted to India, but it did not report investigating the allegations or prosecuting the diplomat for trafficking crimes. In December 2015, the MOL opened a specialized anti-trafficking unit mandated to investigate and prevent the illegal trading of workers’ visas, train labor inspectors, and brief migrant workers on their labor rights. The government conducted numerous anti-trafficking trainings for officials during the reporting period, including on child sexual exploitation and the link between trafficking and cybersecurity.


The government demonstrated some progress to identify trafficking victims, but authorities continued to punish some victims for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking. From October 2014 to October 2015—part of which is outside of the current reporting period as the Saudi system keeps records according to the hijri calendar—the government reported identifying 658 male and female trafficking victims, a significant increase from the 57 identified in the previous reporting period. The government continued to distribute victim identification criteria to officials and provided training on their implementation to police and officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs. Nevertheless, the government’s implementation of procedures to identify victims continued to be uneven throughout the Kingdom, and government officials continued to arrest, detain, and deport potential trafficking victims, particularly illegal foreign workers and domestic workers who fled their employers. Women arrested for prostitution offenses—some of whom may have been unidentified victims of trafficking—faced prosecution and, if convicted, imprisonment or corporal punishment; in practice, authorities deported foreigners, sometimes after holding them in detention.

Although the government did not provide specialized shelters for victims of sex trafficking, it continued to operate shelters for child beggars, some of whom may have been trafficking victims, as well as 10 welfare centers for female domestic workers, some of whom were trafficking victims. In 2015, the government also opened a welfare center for male domestic workers. Although these centers varied in quality across the Kingdom, they provided shelter and psycho-social, health, and educational services to trafficking victims. The welfare center in Riyadh operated as a one-stop shop, providing residents with legal assistance, immigration and passport services, translation, and rehabilitative care by seven female social workers, as well as trained psychologists and other medical professionals. Labor source-country diplomatic officials had regular access to their nationals residing in the center. Due to a lack of available and adequate protection services for all trafficking victims, authorities kept some victims in smaller cities in jails until their cases were resolved. Many victims continued to seek refuge at their embassies; source-country diplomatic missions continued to report complaints by their citizens of unpaid wages, physical or sexual abuse, and poor working conditions. In May 2015, the government granted a six-month residence visa that included the right to work to 446,000 out-of-status Yemeni citizens who were illegally residing in Saudi Arabia and highly vulnerable to trafficking; however, the government did not report screening these individuals for trafficking.

The government reportedly encouraged victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenders, yet there were few known cases of victims successfully pursuing criminal cases against abusive employers due to lengthy delays in the immigration and justice system. During judicial proceedings, authorities reportedly gave trafficking victims the option to remain in the country—in protective custody or working for a new employer—or they could request an immediate exit visa; however, it was unclear if any victims received these benefits during the reporting period. The law entitles identified trafficking victims to legal assistance, translation services, and immediate repatriation upon the victim’s request. The government reportedly provided protection to witnesses involved in trafficking cases.


The government maintained efforts to prevent trafficking. The government continued to update its national anti-trafficking action plan and allocated substantial resources for its interagency anti-trafficking working group. The government continued to implement the wage protection system, which required employers to pay foreign workers through bank transfers, thereby allowing the MOL to ensure workers were paid appropriately. It remained unclear, however, whether the system effectively flagged potential trafficking cases for criminal investigation. MOL continued to employ 1,000 labor inspectors, and it conducted more than 260,000 labor inspections, withdrew the licenses of eight recruitment firms, and froze the operations of 21 recruitment offices. MOL imposed penalties in nearly 2,500 cases of companies violating the government’s mid-day work ban during the summer months. MOL continued to operate a hotline to receive labor dispute complaints with operators that spoke a variety of migrant worker languages. It was unclear, however, if any trafficking victims were identified through this hotline. MOL continued to distribute a guidebook to all migrant workers entering the country, which contained MOL’s hotline number. The police also operated an emergency number, which could refer potential trafficking victims to protection services, but it did not report identifying any victims during the reporting period. The government continued to operate an online portal providing domestic workers and employers with information about their legal rights. During the reporting period, the government finalized domestic worker agreements with Niger, Uganda, and Nepal, which aimed to protect workers’ contracts with their employers. The government did not conduct anti-trafficking public awareness campaigns, but government-controlled media continued to report trafficking issues in an effort to inform the public about the crime. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel. The government took actions to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts and forced labor. The government did not have extraterritorial authority to prosecute citizens engaged in sex tourism abroad.

Associated documents

  • Document ID 1117372 Related / Associated
  • Methodology associated with Macau: Annual report on trafficking in persons (covering March 2015 to February 2016)

    Trafficking in Persons Report 2016 - Country Narratives - Macau (Periodical Report, English)