RIYADH: Illegal foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, mostly Asians, are in a race against time to take advantage of an amnesty ending on Wednesday that would allow them to stay or return home without prosecution.
King Abdullah announced the amnesty on April 3, granting foreign workers three months to regularize their residency or leave the oil-rich Gulf monarchy to avoid being blacklisted or jailed and fined.
More than 1.5 million illegal foreign workers came forward during the first two months of the amnesty, the labor ministry said.
It did not say how many illegal foreign workers currently live in the kingdom, but the number is reported to be around two million.
Of these, some 180,000 have left in addition to more than 200,000 unregistered workers expelled at the start of the year under new regulations to stamp out illegal immigration.
Many workers are still queueing outside their embassies to obtain documents to either leave Saudi Arabia or legalize their status before Wednesday.
As in most Gulf states, foreigners in Saudi Arabia need to be sponsored by a local business to obtain entry and work permits.
Foreigners desperate to work in the country are willing to pay for sponsorship, and sponsoring expatriates has become a lucrative business for some Saudis.
But under the new rules, workers can be employed only by their own sponsors.
Sharon, a Filipina maid, stood queing in the scorching heat outside her country’s embassy in Riyadh.
“I’m trying to renew my passport as I am desperate to find an employer to sponsor me and keep me in the kingdom,” she said.
“I’ve provided fingerprints and obtained a travel document, in case I don’t get my passport ready in time,” the 38-year-old said.
But 25-year-old Anne, also from the Philippines, was concerned.
“I have a travel document in hand, but I cannot find a seat on a flight to Manila. I am anxious to be with my daughter who I haven’t seen in four years and hold her in my arms,” she told Agence France-Presse.
In Jeddah, the commercial capital, Indonesian worker Ali Rahman stood outside Jakarta’s consulate, desperately waiting to finalize his documents.
“I’ve lost hope unless the amnesty is extended to after July 3,” he said.
“There are still hundreds of us waiting here for consular formalities. And once completed, the paperwork has to go to the immigration authorities and the labor ministry.”
It is a worrying time for the workers, most of whom are from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia, but with some from Yemen and Egypt too.
They are fearful of the campaign of arrests promised by authorities once the amnesty expires.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, is a goldmine for millions of people from poor Asian and Arab countries where unemployment is high.