JEDDAH // As an illegal foreign worker sleeping rough in Saudi Arabia's second largest city, keeping beneath the radar of the immigration authorities should be a priority for Henry Lopez. But for the Filipino and hundreds of other men and women camping out under a motorway flyover in downtown Jeddah, deportation is exactly what they are looking for. The workers are willing to sleep and eat in unsanitary conditions beneath King Fahd Road - sometimes for months on end - in the hope they will eventually get to return home with a free air ticket, courtesy of the Saudi government.
Riyadh has long had a policy of paying for the airfare home of Muslim pilgrims who overstay their visas after coming to the kingdom for the Umrah or Haj pilgrimages to Mecca. The immigrant workers, who have usually fled jobs because of disputes with their Saudi employers, or just because they want to go home, hope to piggyback on this Saudi policy and get a free ride home, according to diplomats and journalists who have studied the issue.
"We are escaping from our employers," said Mr Lopez, 40, who worked as a surveyor in Riyadh for six years and has been living under the bridge for a month. Dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans, he was passing time with other Filipino men lounging on blankets around a small tent. The men said they slept in the open air. Nearby, someone had set up shop on a counter, selling basic grocery items. As the morning heat rose from the concrete and asphalt and the noise of traffic rumbled overhead, scores of workers from other poverty-ridden countries - Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Sri Lanka - lounged about on pieces of cardboards or blankets.
Asked why he did not just buy a plane ticket home, Mr Lopez replied: "We don't have money." It is not a new sight. Workers seeking repatriation have congregated under the bridge for some years now but a visit to the kingdom last week by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Philippines president, has shone a light on the stranded expatriates. She requested that the Saudi government expedite the exit of several hundred Filipinos seeking deportation both in Jeddah and Riyadh.
The government responded positively with the immediate repatriation of 121 Filipinos from Riyadh. In Jeddah, another group of 121 were repatriated in early September, prior to her visit, after they camped out in front of the Pilippines consulate to highlight their plight. Since then another 97 have been deported and more than 200 are now in the deportation process. They have been moved from the motorway overpass site to proper shelter in a government detention centre.
"They are under the impression that it's easy to be deported, which is not true," said Ezzedin Tago, the Philippines consul general in Jeddah. Still, the number of deportees to the Philippines has been dropping steadily, he said, though the reasons for the decrease is unclear. In 2007, 4,000 were sent home at Saudi government expense; in 2008, 2,800 and so far this year, 1,900. Gen Mansour al Turki, an interior ministry spokesman, said immigration authorities deport "on average" 500 people of all nationalities a day.
Noor El Islam, 31, who has been living under the motorway for three months worked as a driver in Riyadh but wants to go home to Bangladesh because his son died. "We're not angry with the government of Saudi Arabia, we're angry with our own government for not helping us." he said. "I hope that the Saudi government will pay [for his repatriation]." Many of the illegal workers say they ran away from an abusive employer. While that may be the case with some, Mr Tago said it is not always the employer's fault.
Once a foreigner flees his workplace he no longer has his passport because they are usually held by employers. These missing documents complicate and delay the deportation process. Some workers must get new documents from their embassies allowing them to enter their homeland. "I bought my own ticket but they would not let me leave," said one Muslim Filipino who no longer had his passport. He said he had overstayed his Umrah visa on purpose in order to work in Saudi Arabia, and had got a job as a cook. That was three years ago and now he wants to go home.
These "overstayers," as they are called, get jobs on the black market, working as plumbers, tailors and shop clerks. Mr Tago said that the workers who congregate at the flyover, which is located on Sitteen Street and also known as Kandara Bridge, come from all over the kingdom. Some have been fleeced by con men who promised them, for a fee, fast repatriation at Saudi government expense, he added. They hang out in this location because they know that this is where the immigration officials "go to pick up deportees," Mr Tago said. When asked if they want to get arrested, he replied "Basically yes."
In the past many deported workers would return to Saudi Arabia to work after spending time at home. But earlier this year immigration officials began fingerprinting and scanning the retinas of arriving foreigners. This will allow Saudi authorities to deny new visas to applicants who overstayed previous ones and were deported. Overstayers cannot return to the kingdom for at least five years, according to Tago.