Sunday, May 15, 2005

Fighting Crime and Illegal Immigration

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

The campaign against illegal immigrants is very much overdue. For decades, millions have immigrated to this country seeking economic, spiritual, and social and political asylum. Most came legally, took residence and work permits and helped us prosper. We owe them for taking this country and nation to the new age.

Many others came for the same goals, but by illegal means or with illegitimate intentions.

Millions come for pilgrimage every year and many stay over. Citizens of certain areas of the world are more likely to do so. They are mostly poor, uneducated and unskilled. Others are skillful, but weren’t fortunate enough to get contracts, or calculated it was more rewarding to work as free-lancers. Many are useful as temporary help, but in total they overwhelmed the labor market with cheap, unreliable workers.

Thousands of laborers and domestic help arrive legally to work for homes and companies. Then they leave their job because they don’t like the pay and treatment or find better offers. Many are making it their business to contact newcomers, offer them free-lance jobs with higher pay and more flexible hours outside the system. It is unfair to the sponsors who paid for their tickets, visas and other expenses. It is dangerous for the rest of us because many turn to crimes. Organized criminal activities, like theft, drug trade and prostitution, are increasingly common. Individual acts such as mugging, pickpocketing, rape and even killing are on the rise.

Shunned by the system, illegal residents concentrate on certain areas of towns. Usually, these areas are in a dismal state. They lack proper infrastructure, public services and security. Visit there and you feel like you are in a different world. Residents have no access to educational and health facilities. Gangs rule in the absence of law and order.

In some places, people live for generations outside the system. They are neither Saudis, nor legal residents. Many have lost their original ID documents. They can’t get work permits or provide their families with proper schooling, training and medical services. Without good skills and legal status they have to survive one way or another. Some do temporary jobs; others don’t feel obliged to work hard for a society they consider hostile. Beside, taking higher risks gives richer rewards, especially considering they don’t have much to lose in any case.

In the last few years, the rise in crime was indicative of the worsening economic situation of some ethnic groups. Many were encouraged by the weak visa restrictions, improving economy, and the distraction of security forces with the campaign against terrorism. As more and more get away uncaught, others were encouraged to follow suit. Something had to be done ... soon to arrest or regularize the status of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.

In the last three weeks the campaign against crime started in earnest. In Jeddah, Makkah and Riyadh, military and civilian authorities cooperated in the crackdown. On good intelligence work, teams of special police and civil defense forces in tandem with municipality and passport representatives moved into hitherto off-limit areas. Thousands of thieves, prostitutes, fake doctors, drug sellers, black magicians and illegal residents were taken into custody. Convicted foreigners will be punished, then deported to their home countries, put on the black list and won’t be allowed in under any excuse and disguise. That is justice. That is right.

But what is not justice or right is to mistreat prisoners or deny them their due legal and human rights. We need to make sure that prison space is available, stay is comfortable and the whole situation is monitored by independent agencies, like the Saudi Human Rights Society.

We, especially the media need to be extra careful not to stereotype, generalize or categorize on racial lines. In Islam there is no guilt by association. Allah says: No soul shall be punished for the sin of another. No race is better than the other and the best of us are the better in deed and character, not blood or color. In the Land of Islam and the two holiest mosques, racism cannot be tolerated. Hate speech about Africans, Asians, and others must not be printed. News stories and headlines about the issue must be treated with sensitivity.

The message should be clear to all: We won’t tolerate crimes, or illegal work and residency. But we are a civilized Muslim nation and we will assure that only the offenders are punished — justly and humanly.

I would also call for expediting the status correction of long-term illegal residents, as Governor of Makkah Region, Prince Abdul Majeed promised. This way, we could tap the huge pool of local, Arabic-speaking, culture-savvy laborers to replace millions of foreigners in low-paid, menial jobs.

Simultaneously we should tighten our visa requirements as well as our border security to prevent illegal crossovers. We might not achieve 100 percent results, but we should make 100 percent effort — all the time.

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