Used, abused and deported: migrant workers land back in Bangladesh after Saudi dreams turn sour

<span>Sabir Ahmed, 65, spent 26 years working in Saudi Arabia before being deported. He returned to Dhaka with nothing to show for his time there.</span><span>Photograph: All photographs by Pete Pattisson</span>
Sabir Ahmed, 65, spent 26 years working in Saudi Arabia before being deported. He returned to Dhaka with nothing to show for his time there.Photograph: All photographs by Pete Pattisson

Among the joyful family reunions at the arrivals gate at Dhaka’s international airport, one group of travellers stands out. These men appear gaunt and dazed, most of them carrying nothing but a thin blanket they picked up on the plane. They wear tracksuits and blue rubber sandals or shoes without laces. Some walk barefoot.

All have just been deported from Saudi Arabia, and each day they arrive by the planeload. Nearly 70,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers were deported from the Gulf kingdom in 2022, mostly for not having a valid residence permit, known as an iqama.

They return from one of the wealthiest countries in the world, hungry, traumatised and without even the money to buy a bus ticket home.

The only thing the men do bring back are horrific stories of abuse, false contracts and wage theft that tumble angrily out of them. One man, Amir Hossein, says he paid recruitment agents 400,000 taka (£2,860) to get to Saudi Arabia, but has been sent home after just over a year, during which he worked for nine months without payment.

Another man says: “I was told I would work in a restaurant in a five-star hotel but ended up in a tea stall.” A third says he worked for three months but was only paid one month’s salary. “I’ve lost all my money,” he says.

Saudi Arabia will rely on tens of thousands of low-wage labourers such as these to deliver its dream of hosting the 2034 World Cup. The pipeline of workers from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia is expected to increase dramatically if the country is anointed host by Fifa, as expected this year.

The workers’ allegations of abuse at the hands of their Saudi employers should be a red flag to Fifa, which was heavily criticised for the severe abuse endured by many migrant workers in the lead‑up to the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

Human rights groups are warning that if Saudi Arabia does not make drastic efforts to stop the abuse of migrant workers, which is already widespread in the Gulf kingdom, another World Cup tournament could be tainted with suffering and exploitation.

My boss cancelled my papers without telling me. He told the police to send me back. He owed me six months wages

Mohammed Rohmotullah

Bangladeshi labourers are not usually to blame for failing to have the correct residency papers. Many arriving back in Bangladesh claim their employer or sponsor failed to obtain or renew their iqama document, which they need to legally live and work, after they arrived in Saudi Arabia.

“My boss cancelled my iqama without telling me,” says Mohammed Rohmotullah, who had worked in Saudi Arabia for three and a half years. “When the police caught me, they called him and he told them to send me back. He owed me six months’ wages.”

Others say their iqama was still valid but they were deported regardless. “I asked them: why are you arresting me?” says a deportee named Shahabuddin. “They told me to shut up.”

Amnesty International says the situation for migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is bleak, and that they “[continue] to be abused and exploited under the sponsorship system … thousands arbitrarily detained in inhumane conditions, tortured and otherwise ill-treated, and involuntarily returned to their home”.

Despite the Gulf kingdom announcing it had abolished the kafala system – under which workers are tied to their employer, Ali Mohamed, Arabic editor of says “employers wield the power to revoke or not renew work permits and can file ‘absconding’ charges, rendering workers irregular and liable to deportation”.

Prioritising the arrest and deportation of migrants over holding employers to account “reinforces the perception that the Saudi authorities regard migrants merely as exploitable and disposable labour”, he says.

The workers interviewed by the Guardian say they were rounded up on the streets or picked up while eating breakfast and taken directly to a detention centre, where they were typically held for one to two weeks before being sent straight home.

Conditions in detention centres vary, but some men allege they were kept in huge overcrowded cells where 250 to 300 men slept two to a single bed or on the floor. There were no showers, little food and no chance to appeal, they claim. “The conditions were miserable. I’ve never seen such a place in my life,” says Rohmotullah, who was locked up for 16 days.

The consequences of being deported are particularly dire for Bangladeshis. Almost all migrant workers must pay extortionate fees to recruitment agents for their jobs in the Gulf, but Bangladeshis are charged by far the highest rates. Many are forced home before they can pay off the cost of their recruitment.


One of the last to emerge at Dhaka airport is 65‑year‑old Sabir Ahmed, who spent 26 years in Saudi Arabia. He carries a small rucksack but there is nothing in it. He does not even have the money for the bus home. “My family will have to pay the bus fare when I reach there,” he says, before heading off, his empty bag over his shoulder. It is all he has to show for almost three decades in Saudi Arabia.

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In a statement, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development said the country “only repatriates those proven to have violated the work and residency regulations in the kingdom after taking all legal measures to verify their violations and coordinating with the embassies of their countries”.

Detention centres meet the highest international standards and ensure workers’ rights to healthcare, nutrition and a clean and safe environment, as well as the right to appeal, the statement said.

Staff from workers’ embassies have the right to visit detention centres, and the Saudi human rights commission, “makes routine visits … to assess the integrity of all procedures and ensure that the appropriate laws and regulations related to human rights are adhered to”, the statement added.

Fifa and the Bangladesh government did not respond to multiple requests for comment.