Policy Brief

Addressing Irregular Migration in the Gulf States

| November 2015

Executive Summary

Irregular migration has great resonance in the Gulf, just as in the West. Migrants in irregular situation avoid state administrative procedures and so their numbers are unknown. The largest amnesty (Saudi Arabia 2013) would have affected more than 50 per cent of the migrants in the country. Irregular migration is by definition a breach of legislations that regulate the migrant’s status.

In the Gulf States it is, in particular, a by-product of: the sponsorship (kafâla) system that hampers both a migrant’s individual freedom of movement and the free functioning of the labour market; nationalisation policies that continue to extend the list of occupations reserved for nationals; and nationality laws that bar citizenship to all but a very few first- and second-generation migrants.

Irregular migration also results from contexts characterising some sending states (poverty, corruption, failing social contracts), which forces nationals from these countries to move to more dynamic labour markets. Moreover, leaving the recruitment of foreign workers to private brokers also creates conditions that lead to migrants’ “merchandisation,” and hence abuses, in many cases. Finally, irregularity also stems from migrants’ extreme determination in pursuing their goals and ambitions, whatever their status in the destination country.

Efforts must be made by countries of origin and destination to curtail irregular migration. In the Gulf States, this may be addressed in several ways: by improving the working and living conditions of foreign workers; by amending sponsorship rules; by granting citizenship to select categories of migrants; and by disentangling migration laws from labour laws. Initiatives in this regard have been taken by some countries and need to be strengthened in the future.



We read media stories, every day, about irregular migration and associated tragedies in many parts of the world. The global media seldom deals with irregular migration in the Gulf States, however. Indeed, migration to the Gulf is typically overlooked by the international media save on rare occasions: for example, the conditions of workers on the building sites of the 2022 Football World Cup. But individual stories told by migrants themselves as well as recurrent local news stories about police raids on migrants, deportations and amnesties demonstrate that irregular migration has just as much resonance in the Gulf, as in Europe, North America or Australia.

1. Which migrants are in irregular situation?

Migrants fall into an irregular situation as soon as their entry, stay or employment is unauthorised. Irregularity is a relative and transient situation, not an absolute and permanent status:

  • It varies according to countries and their legal and institutional framework;
  • It changes over time as the same person can be in a regular situation today and an irregular situation tomorrow (or the other way around);
  • It depends upon the migrant’s individual characteristics as laws deal differently with migrants according to nationality, age, gender and occupation. In the Gulf States, irregularity particularly threatens domestic workers because they are excluded from labour law provisions.

In the Gulf States, most migrants enter legally (for work, tourism, pilgrimage etc.) and only at a later stage do a number of them fall in an irregular situation in relation to residency and employment.  Also, they may be in an irregular situation because they are employed by someone other than their sponsor or are working in an occupation inconsistent with their work permit. This happens when they enter on a ‘free’ or ‘azad’ visa, usually bought from a sponsor, often without the provision of a job.

2. How many migrants are in irregular situation?

We do not know. Migrants in irregular situation often live in limbo, hiding from the state administration that counts people. This is the case in all countries but particularly so in the Gulf.

From time to time, the Gulf States release figures on deportations, but these do not provide any reasonable sense of the overall scale of irregular migration. Amnesty programmes allow the return or regularisation of migrants in irregular situation and have been periodically launched by Gulf States since the mid-1990s, affecting from a few tens of thousands migrants to several millions migrants, depending on the country. Some 125,000 residency law violators (i.e., over-stayers) were counted in Kuwait during the most recent amnesty campaign (2011), which is fewer than 5 per cent of the 2.8 million foreign nationals residing in the country. In Saudi Arabia, an extremely high number of status corrections performed during the regularisation and assessment campaign of 2013 suggests an accordingly high proportion of migrants in irregular situation: 9.9 million corrections were made for an estimated 10.1 million foreign nationals, each migrant in irregular situation being susceptible to be corrected for more than one irregularity. Others may be regularised without official amnesties...

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For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Philippe Fargues, Françoise De Bel-Air, Nasra M. Shah “Addressing Irregular Migration in the Gulf States,” GLMM Policy Brief No. 1/2015, Gulf Labour Market and Migration (GLMM) Programme of the Migration Policy Center (MPC) and the Gulf Research Center (GRC), http://gulfmigration.eu.

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