In 2008 Saudi officials told American diplomats that around 10 per cent of Haj pilgrims overstayed their visas each year. (Shutterstock)
Down a narrow alleyway deep in the Jeddah slum of Karantina, three women from Sudan have set up stalls under colourful parasols, selling peanuts, hibiscus petals, dried pulses, baskets, frankincense, calabashes and sandalwood.
They laugh and gossip in the sunshine, swathed in bright printed cloth, while a scrawny black cat picks its way between piles of rubbish. But when approached by a stranger, they are cautious.
Jeddah has attracted outsiders for centuries, being the main port of arrival for Muslims making the haj pilgrimage to Mecca. It is this history that gives Karantina its name: older residents can remember when it was “quarantine” for pilgrims.
But the people who now live in this slum in the south of Saudi Arabia’s second biggest city were drawn not only by religious devotion but also the top oil exporter’s wealth. They live in a legal limbo, sometimes for generations.
“This is the forgotten area,” said a bearded Sudanese man in his 40s. “Here are many illegal immigrants who don’t have official papers. Government supervision is scarce.”
Saudi Arabia’s hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are not counted among the millions of expatriates who reside legally in the Arab kingdom, working as everything from maids to finance executives.
Instead they live on the margins, ineligible for government services and outside of the law, but often unofficially tolerated because of the expense and administrative obstacles in the way of expelling them.
In recent months, however, their status has caught the attention of Saudi media, who have been calling them “infiltrators” and warning readers of their supposed links to crime, disease and militancy.
“The infiltrators will carry with them all their social ills including security threats, criminal behaviour and ethical issues,” wrote commentator Hamoud Abu Talib in an opinion piece in Okaz daily this month.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Mansour al-Turki, said the media has exaggerated the number of crimes committed by illegal immigrants and added that Saudi citizens themselves contributed to the problem by using them for cheap labour.
Many illegal immigrants have now lived in Saudi Arabia for decades, having children and grandchildren who now live without nationality or residence papers, and prompting government officials to speak of a “humanitarian crisis”.
Some risked a perilous journey through volatile Somalia and Yemen, others overstayed work visas or came to perform the annual haj and never went home.
In 2008 Saudi officials told American diplomats that around 10 per cent of pilgrims overstayed their visas each year, a U.S. embassy cable released by WikiLeaks revealed. Last year more than two million people came on haj from overseas.
Last week local media reported police in Asir Province bordering Yemen as saying 1,470 illegal immigrants had been arrested in just two days.
“Dealing with these problems is not easy once they’re in the country … Sometimes you can’t prove their nationality,” Turki told Reuters. “You cannot send them back to Yemen. They will not take them.”
Turki was not able to estimate the number of illegal immigrants in the country.