Tag Archives: residency

Saudi Arabia: a land of closed borders, keyhole solutions, or both?

I don’t often think of Saudi Arabia as a country I’d particularly like to migrate to, which is why I’ve always found it surprising how popular Saudi Arabia is in polling data on migration. For instance, a recent Gallup poll put Saudi Arabia as the 5th-most desired destination migration country in the world, projecting that 29 million people would permanently settle in Saudi Arabia if they could.

My initial reaction was to surmise that perhaps Saudi Arabia’s status as a cultural or religious beacon in the Muslim and/or Arab worlds accounts for this. It’s also worth noting that millions of Muslims from around the world descend on Saudi Arabia for the Muslim haj or umrah every year. It’s not difficult to imagine that some of them might want to retire and die in the land of their prophet, or just fall in love with the country from their visit there.

However, some recent news from the BBC has made me rethink this hypothesis a little: apparently Saudi Arabia is copying the US and Israel in constructing a 1,800km long border wall that will seal it off from Yemen. Unlike the US, Saudi Arabia actually has legitimate reasons to fear that terrorists will cross the border here: a destabilising situation in Yemen has reportedly allowed al-Qaeda to thrive there. But according to the BBC, security is not the whole story:

Border security has dramatically worsened in the aftermath of the revolution, as thousands of illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and gun runners try to slip from impoverished Yemen into Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s richest countries, Lt al-Ahmari told the BBC’s Frank Gardner.

Five Saudi border guards had recently been killed along the border in shoot-outs with well-armed smugglers, he added.

The first part of the fence has already been built on the coast, slowing down – but not stopping – the tide of illegal immigrants.

It seems a bit disturbing to me to characterise economic migrants or refugees fleeing war and terrorism in the same boat with “drug smugglers and gun runners”. If all they have in common is that they’ve crossed an arbitrary line in the map, what purpose does this serve? Are we now to classify high school students and cyberterrorists in the same bucket because they both violate intellectual property laws with their online activity?

The “one of the world’s richest countries” certainly gives one pause at the suggestion that security against terrorism is all there is to this. There are plenty of rich oil-producing countries in the Middle East — so it does puzzle me that, say, the United Arab Emirates don’t pop up as much in Gallup’s polling. But perhaps the reason Saudi Arabia is popular with prospective unauthorised immigrants is because of its long land borders which can be easily crossed. Saudi Arabia also has an extensive guest worker programme which I suppose further spreads word of the economic opportunities there.

I am curious to find out more about immigration to Saudi Arabia. There are plenty of questions which come to mind:

  1. What accounts for its unusual popularity on the list of prospective immigrant destinations? All the other countries which top the list are developed Western democracies.

  2. What kinds of immigration programmes does Saudi Arabia have? They recently gave unauthorised immigrants a 3-month amnesty to either leave or regularise their status, but otherwise it is unclear to me how their programmes operate, though I do know that they have millions of guest workers.
  3. What is the status of unauthorised immigration in Saudi Arabia? If it is true that 10% of the 2 million annual pilgrims overstay their visas each year, there could be millions working and residing without permission in Saudi Arabia (indeed, it looks like some have settled there permanently).
  4. How does Saudi Arabia handle permanent residency versus nationality? Has it successfully decoupled the two concepts? Some anecdotal evidence suggests that perhaps it has. Some might term this a keyhole solution. Although I am not happy about the idea of someone spending their entire life in a country and yet being unable to claim citizenship there, if Saudi Arabia does easily grant residency while more tightly controlling citizenship, this is actually much more civilised and moral than the alternative in much of the “civilised world,” which is to deny most human beings both residency and citizenship.

I am not sure whether the Yemeni border wall is justified. But whether it is or not, it is sad to think that those fleeing war, oppression, or economic collapse will be the ones who suffer the most. Drug smugglers and gun runners have the resources to find another way in or out. Regular people don’t have those resources. In principle, under international law, the borders are open for refugees. But in practice, it’s a different story. It is sad to think that there are millions of innocent people, who through no fault of their own, will remain trapped in a country wracked with conflict, having nowhere to go.

A DREAM Act for Singapore? Or, the arbitrariness of nationality-based residence laws

There is a 19-year-old Filipino citizen who has literally lived her entire life in Singapore who, as of this writing, risks being kicked out of the only country she has ever called home:

Nadirah was born out of wedlock in Singapore and given a Filipino citizenship, as her mother was a Filipino. Along with her five siblings, two other siblings are also non-citizens while the other three siblings were given citizenship as her parents got officially married in Philippine before they were born.

As Nadirah graduates from ITE, she will soon be asked to return to Philippine once her student visa expires in a month’s time. To be relying on relatives whom she never spoken to for years and a country where she has no memory of, the situation looks utmost depressing for this young lady with a uncertain future.

Nadirah’s situation reminds me all too much of the “DREAMers” of the US –young people who are present in the US without lawful immigration status who have spent most, if not all, of their lives as law-abiding members of US society. The immigration laws of Singapore ought to give people like her relief: there’s an argument to be made that even if she doesn’t deserve citizenship, she certainly ought to be able to reside in the only country she’s ever called home.

But we ought to look beyond the specific issue of young people whose paper nationality does not match the nationality written on their hearts. There are plenty of older people who, whether or not they feel a sense of national belonging to another country, are productive and harmonious members of that country’s society.

My mother may provide a useful illustration: she is a Filipino citizen who resided in Malaysia with our family for several years on a renewable 1-year “social visit pass”: the Malaysian immigration authorities maintained this legal fiction that she was making a “social visit” to my father for an extended period of time. While this is certainly more favourable than how other immigration legal regimes treat families, it also meant my mother had no legal standing to work in the country (despite possessing a post-graduate degree in a STEM field) and risked deportation or being barred entry for fairly arbitrary reasons.

A real risk my family faced was that if my father died, there would be no legal fiction for her to remain on a “social visit” and force her to return to the Philippines (where she has not lived for decades). Moreover, the restrictions of the pass forced my parents to spend multiple working days every year processing the necessary red tape to renew my mother’s visa (a luxury which many less-educated, working-class families probably can’t afford), and deterred my mother from leaving the country (on one occasion, a bureaucratic error in her visa meant that she risked being unable to re-enter the country if she left, even for a brief visit — so she simply did not visit any friends or family in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries until the next year, when her visa was renewed and the error corrected).

In principle, my family could have obtained permanent residency for my mother. In practice, the immigration bureaucracy seemed content not to bother itself with her application. It’s going on 15 years since her application was first filed, and every single time we’ve checked on its status, we’ve been told: “Wait for a letter from us.” The last time my father visited a Malaysian immigration office to discuss this, he saw a white woman berating a civil servant. She had apparently married a Malaysian who had since died, which is probably why she was there at the office that day. She was shouting at the government clerk in fluent, well-accented Malay: “I have been living in this country for longer than you have been alive!”

(Of course, there’s always a story that can top any story you think of. If we are speaking of immigrants’ pulling rank based on seniority, I can only imagine what a Mr. Padilla, who had lived in the US for over 4 decades and fought for it in the Vietnam War, had to say when he received his deportation order.)

The way we think about immigration law assumes citizens must, more or less, live in the country of their nationality. If they live or develop ties elsewhere, they need to prioritise their loyalties and naturalise as necessary. The permanent residency systems of most countries assume that those holding permanent residency will eventually naturalise: I have heard of one Malaysian holding permanent residency in the UK who calls both the UK and Malaysia home being frustrated at the UK border when its immigration officers demand to know why she wants to come in (“because it’s my home!”).

Yet there is no reason to bind citizenship and residency together: even in the status quo we can simply define citizenship as membership in a polity, and residency as the right to reside there and submit to that polity’s laws. Perhaps Nadirah wouldn’t be satisfied without citizenship — she might have grounds for this, since it sounds like she has always thought of herself as a Singaporean. But she and her Singaporean friends and family would still find this arrangement a whole lot more palatable than the alternative, which is to expel her as a non-resident to a country that is just as foreign to her as it is to Lee Kuan Yew.

The very fact that some of Nadirah’s siblings are Singaporean citizens and some are not speaks volumes about the arbitrariness and ridiculousness of how immigration law treats human beings: the entire lives of people, and the communities they are embedded in, hinge on some pieces of paper. Whether it’s a birth certificate (God bless those lucky people whose foreign parents were rich enough to give birth to them in the US and entitle them to American citizenship) or a marriage certificate (which gave some of Nadirah’s siblings the legal imprimatur that she lacks), it serves as an entirely arbitrary division between people who, for all other intents and purposes, are identical.

If immigration policy prevents people who call a place their home — a home that their community recognises as theirs — from actually living in that home, then as a moral matter, immigration policy is wrong. Plain and simple. We recognise the moral truth of platitudes like “Home is where the heart is.” We may sing paeans to the importance of community and how that defines the space we call home. But when home is on the line for members of our communities who, by an accident of birth, don’t have the legal right to live in their own home, do we have the moral courage to change the laws which make a mockery of the concepts of home, family, and community?